The Power of Small Ideas

It’s not surprising that when managers think about promoting workers’ ideas, they envision going after the home runs–the super-sized breakthroughs that promise fame and fortune. Yet it’s actually smarter to go after small ideas, as they’re where the real action is.

Ideas Are Free: How the Idea Revolution is Liberating People
and Transforming Organizations

by Alan G. Robinson and Dean M. Schroeder
Berrett-Koehler Publishers
ISBN: 1576752828
April 2004, $24.95 US

Why small ideas outperform the big, dramatic ones

Everyone loves big, dramatic ideas. In fact, the bigger and sexier the ideas, the more people are drawn to them.

So it’s not surprising that when managers think about promoting workers’ ideas, they envision going after the home runs—the super-sized breakthroughs that promise fame and fortune. Yet it’s actually smarter to go after small ideas, as they’re where the real action is. Why? According to our research, there are countless reasons. Here we’ll focus on two of them—sustainable competitive advantage and performance excellence—as they’re vital to every organization’s success.

Sustaining a competitive advantage
A few years ago, we were asked to help a well-known German automaker improve its idea system.

“It’s so hard in our business today,” managers told us. “We’re always looking for the next big idea, especially to cut costs. We work long hours, with no breathing space whatsoever. We’re exhausted.”

It became clear to us that, despite their tireless efforts, the managers couldn’t seem to create much advantage that was sustainable. Major improvements were quickly countered by other automakers, evaporating any early advantages.

The problem, we soon discovered, was actually the managers’ belief that big ideas were the only way to get ahead. Their own system was limiting their success.

The bigger the ideas, the more likely competitors will discover and counter them. If they affect the company’s products or services, they’re directly visible and often widely advertised. And even if they involve behind-the-scenes improvements—say, to a major system or process—they’re often copied just as quickly. That’s because big, internal initiatives typically require outside sources—individuals, such as suppliers and consultants, who sell their products and services to other companies, too.

So no matter how hard our German colleagues worked to come up with big, cost-cutting ideas, they couldn’t seem to develop a sustainable competitive advantage. While the big ideas were essential to keeping up with the competition, they weren’t sufficient for staying ahead.

Small ideas, on the other hand, are much less likely to migrate to competitors— and even if they do, they’re often too specific to be useful. Consider what happened not long ago at the Vidette Times, a regional newspaper in Indiana.

Due to a supplier’s strike, the pressroom ran out of newsprint late one night. Fortunately, a press operator was prepared with a back-up plan. While the presses required newsprint rolls 45 inches in diameter, he managed to borrow some 47-inch rolls from a sister operation earlier that day.

The press operator’s plan was to manually unroll the 47-inch rolls until they fit on the press—a real feat since each roll weighs about three tons. He and a co-worker took the first roll to a press on a forklift truck. To their astonishment, the larger roll fit perfectly! The press manufacturer’s specification had been too conservative.

The discovery went on to save the newspaper thousands of dollars. It meant fewer roll changes and far fewer “trial copies” after each change, plus shaved a substantial amount of time off each night’s press run.

A more important point, however, is that when the idea came up, the Vidette Times was in the midst of an intense circulation war with its biggest competitor. Had the newspaper come up with a new marketing or editorial idea, its archrival would have been in the know immediately. But how would the competitor learn about the switch to 47-inch rolls? Plus, even if it did get wind of the idea, it would be of no benefit since the rival had a different printing press.

The big “aha” here? Because most small ideas remain proprietary, large numbers of them can accumulate into a big, competitive advantage that is sustainable. That edge often means the difference between success and failure.

Consider Milliken & Company, a global fabric and specialty chemicals company. The organization competes against textile manufacturers that operate in some of the poorest countries in the world—paying its workers less than one-twentieth of what Milliken pays. Many of the company’s U.S. counterparts are struggling or have even gone out of business. Not Milliken.

Since textiles are a mature industry, every competitor has access to the same resources. So Milliken competes by out-managing its overseas rivals. The company’s “Opportunity for Improvement” system brings in some 7,000 ideas from workers every day. Because most ideas—or “OFI’s”—are small, they’re difficult or even impossible for competitors to copy. They amass into superior performance that Milliken has sustained for several decades.

Achieving performance excellence
Small ideas, besides remaining proprietary, enable organizations to pay extraordinary attention to detail. Excellence means getting the details right in all aspects of the business, from quality to service. Beyond a certain level, it’s simply impossible to improve performance without small ideas.

Consider Grapevine Canyon Ranch, a resort in the high desert of southeastern Arizona, overlooking the former homelands of the great Apache chiefs Cochise and Geronimo. Guests come from all over the world to take pleasure in the unspoiled beauty of this historic desert. While they want an authentic experience, they also expect exceptional service. Because Grapevine pays extraordinary attention to every detail—thanks to hundreds of ideas from its workers—the resort delivers.

Every two weeks, Grapevine’s owner, Eve Searle, has a meeting with all employees. Each one is expected to show up with one idea—no matter how small—that will improve some aspect of the ranch’s operation. Some of the ideas have included:

  • Put instructions and labels on the circuit breakers in the cook shack.
  • Provide alcohol-free sparkling cider for non-drinkers on special occasions.
  • Offer in-season fruit as a dessert alternative.
  • Place a receptacle for cigarette butts by the swing.
  • Paint the outdoor water faucets green and red to differentiate between drinking water and yard water.
  • Install a kick plate on the door into the kitchen.
  • Change the brochure directions for guests arriving from Ironwood.
  • Put a step stool in the tour van.
  • Have maintenance prevent the soap caddies in each shower from falling.
  • Relocate the speed-limit sign so it won’t be obstructed by the mesquite bush.

It’s unfeasible to achieve excellence in performance without such attention to detail. And it’s workers—not managers—who most often spot the little things that add up to big success.

(c) 2004 Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder. All rights reserved.

Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder are management consultants and educators and co-authors of Ideas Are Free: How the Idea Revolution Is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations (Berrett-Koehler, $24.95). Contact them at

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