How Small-i Innovation Helps Organizations Soar

Five ways to develop, champion and grow an "everyday" innovation culture

By Mona Mitchell, President & CEO

Small-i InnovationInnovation – it’s become the one powerhouse business competency that separates the winners from the rest. In this high-tech, global economy, a ‘culture of innovation’ (as we are told) must be every successful organization's mantra – an important and valuable corporate asset.

But what really constitutes innovation? Must it mean massive, earth-shaking initiatives driven from above? Major leaps of imagination or R&D breakthroughs geared to change the world? Take LG’s futuristic ROLL-UP TV that disappears into its base – just launched in Las Vegas this January with much fanfare and media hype. Does it have to be this big?
Or, can we HR leaders approach innovation in more bite-sized chunks and less-glamorous packages? The answer is yes!

Business leaders have always focused on big-I innovation and placed very little importance or even emphasis on small-i innovation. This is a huge missed opportunity.

Contrary to what many believe, there are small bite size innovation initiatives we can all realistically take today. They, easier to implement -- and more meaningful to (and inclusive of) each and every employee in our organizations.

Big-I innovation vs. small-i innovation

Let’s begin by differentiating between the two, looking at the thinking that already exists around big-C and small-c creativity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an expert on the topic, defines it this way:

“Big-C creativity leads to the transformation of a domain. Little-c creativity is used in everyday life, as in problem solving.”

Can the same be said of innovation? Absolutely. In fact, the terms small “i” and big “I” innovation were coined by George S. Day, co-director at Wharton’s Mack Center for Technological Innovation. While big-I innovation resides in the world of R&D, product development and business transformation, small-i innovation resides in the everyday work processes of your employees.

Small-i innovation is powered by your employees

Unlike big I innovation, small-i innovation is generated by your employees – and impacts each area, level and department of your organization, in small but significant ways. Small-i innovation resides in those little but important ideas that improve work processes and create greater efficiencies, cut costs, and contribute to creating an engaged and productive culture. In a culture of small-i innovation, your employees are in the driver’s seat, propelling your organization forward. In doing so, they become an important part of your success story – and everyone in your organization wins.

For employees, a small-i innovation culture means:

  • An opportunity to expand their thinking ability beyond limited, traditional approaches to just completing the task at hand
  • Clearer focus and empowerment – with a new mandate to approach job challenges and even business issues in innovative ways 
  • An invitation to generate more ideas – and more deeply scrutinize selected ideas 
  • A more results-oriented method for selling through their ideas, implementing better processes and fresh thinking

An example of small-i innovation in action: Improving HR practices and the onboarding process
Company Y employed small-i innovation to ensure a solid HR onboarding program and inspire higher standards from their HR staff. They began by ensuring all existing employees ‘upped their game’ providing full training on current best practices for all processes or tasks. This new level of proficiency set the bar higher for new employees. Employees old and new were required to perform tasks to a higher baseline standard-- and were also given an opportunity to bring fresh perspectives and new ideas to improve any given task or HR process.

For your organization, a small-i innovation culture means:

  • A greater quantity of innovative ideas
  • More engaged employees – empowered to create new ideas, processes and ways to better address business challenges
  • The ability to build and leverage your organization's intellectual capita
  • A repeatable and sustainable way of thinking that can propel productivity, engagement and bottom-line results

Five ways for HR leaders to forge a small-i innovation culture:

  1. Define innovation
  • Ensure all employees know the difference between big-I innovation and small-i innovation
  1. Facilitate communications
  • Create a space for employees to voice their ideas
  • Ensure there is open communication across the organization and at all levels
  1. Educate
  • Deliver tools and learning to enable employees to exercise, strengthen and apply innovative thinking in their daily working life, through training that covers:
    1. continuous improvement processes
    2. innovation
    3. brainstorming and decision-making
  1. Champion small-i innovation

Ensure all levels of leadership and managers do not stifle small-i innovation. Take steps to prevent objections, like “we have tried that in the past”-- and overcome hurdles.

  1. Measure, recognize and reward
  • Measure and celebrate small and big ideas -- and the individual successes of each employee
  • Include small-i innovation outcomes in your performance management system – and use them as a basis for employee reviews, incentives and promotions

Comments, questions or interested in other ways you can roll out a culture of small-i innovation in your workplace?   Connect with Mona at

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