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Small is not always beautiful in innovation

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A recent article in Marketing Week, ‘Is your brand’s workplace creative enough?’, raised questions about the optimum number of people to involve in the creative process. One contributor highlighted the benefits of keeping creative teams small to keep the process streamlined and reduce the number of people who can stifle the journey of an idea. It’s true there comes a time when a more focused group is required to ensure a great idea has the opportunity to become reality, however, small is not always beautiful in the innovation process.

Firstly, setting up an “innovation team” that is alone responsible for ideation only serves to alienate the rest of the workforce who either feel undervalued or assume they are not needed to contribute new ideas. Smaller teams can also suffer from ‘group think’, a widely accepted phenomenon drawn from the work of psychologist Irving Janis, where a subconscious desire for harmony overcomes objectivity or a focus on the end goal. This leads individuals to avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions, resulting in a loss of creativity and independent thinking. 

Widening the number of people involved who have external perspectives, such as employees not immediately connected to the project, will provide fresh view points and invaluable critiques on existing ideas. This reflects the words of Franz Johannsen who ascertained in his book, ‘The Medici Effect‘, that innovation happens at the intersection of multiple disciplines and cultures. The more people – the more intersections – the more ideas. 

In this regard, big businesses and enterprises are at an advantage. Small companies are often seen as more equipped to innovate than larger rivals. However, following the logic of the Medici Effect, enterprises possess access to a larger and more diverse pool of minds and therefore a greater number of ‘intersections’.

Involving the audience closest to the problem at hand is also vital, and often neglected when opting for a small team. If you’re attempting to find innovative new ways to improve customer service, why not consult the front-line staff who interact most closely with them or even involve the customers themselves? This approach has been taken by a number of businesses, such as Novant Health, which successfully used Mindjet’s Spigit Engage to source the opinions and ideas of thousands of front-line nurses to develop new ways to improve care. 

Effective idea-generation is best done by capitalising on larger numbers of contributors. In today’s hyper-connected world – with social media and the ability to crowd-source ideas using technology – effective idea-generation is possible on even the largest of scales, involving hundreds – or even thousands – of people regardless of their role or hierarchy. 

Once those great ideas have been discovered, that’s when a smaller steering committee is necessary to execute on the best concepts so they become reality. It is only at this stage of the idea journey where small should be considered more valuable in the search for genuine business innovation.

Boris Pluskowski is SVP of customer success and innovation at Mindjet.

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