Embrace Your Small Ideas for Big Impacts


Dev Patnaik

Nothing can kill innovation faster than the performance anxiety that results from outsized ambition.

Originally Published in Fast Company, August 2009

When Interval Research Corporation opened its Silicon Valley offices in 1992, everyone involved was certain of one thing: this would be the single-most innovative company ever created. How could it not be? Interval was the brainchild of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and David Liddle, formerly of Xerox PARC. Allen and Liddle had gathered a team that included the inventor of the inkjet printer, the first person to make music on a computer, and even the creator of Chaos Theory. They even had a parapsychologist (that’s right, a ghostbuster).

Allen gave Interval Research an audacious challenge. The company was given $100 million and 10 years to spend it. As insiders describe it, Interval wasn’t expected to even launch anything in its first five years and didn’t need to generate any profits for the first seven. Allen was apparently willing to hold his breath for a decade if the experiment would result in multiple, massive technological revolutions.

Despite all it had going for it, Interval was a flop. The company spawned five start-ups, none of which made the expected dent in the universe. Among Interval’s creations were a very expensive pirate computer game that could actually be controlled by a model pirate ship and a company that made CD-ROMs for girls. Seven years into the experiment, Allen removed Liddle as CEO of the company and demanded that Interval abandon its mission. Henceforth, the erstwhile innovation hothouse would instead focus on creating applications for Allen’s cable television company. A year later, Allen abandoned this mandate, as well, and pulled the plug on Interval for good.

It would be inaccurate to say that the folks at Interval were unable to come up with anything. In fact, they produced all manner of interesting ideas that ranged from the eccentric to the profound, including some very useful advances in computer networking technology. Unfortunately, the company killed most of these ideas before they ever saw the light of day. Frustratingly, most of these ideas weren’t canceled because they lacked merit. Rather, many of the concepts simply felt too small to be worthy of Interval’s grandiose ambitions. Interval produced all sorts of nifty ideas, but those ideas seemed pathetic for a company that was aiming for revolution. Nothing can kill innovation faster than the performance anxiety that results from outsized ambition.

Success can raise the bar for a company until the pressure for big results kills all creativity. It’s that kind of pressure that prevented J.D. Salinger from writing a follow-on to The Catcher in the Rye. It’s also why Robert Pirsig took thirty years after Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to write his second book. And it’s why James Cameron is only now wrapping up his first real movie since Titanic made him the king of the world.

In a business culture that likes to talk up big innovations, we may be lacking appreciation for the beauty of the small idea. Outsized ambitions can set you up for failure in a big way when you spend most of your time rejecting your own thinking. No one bats a thousand at coming up with big, disruptive innovations, so you need to explore all your ideas to find the great ones. Not only that, most really big ideas often look small to start. In their book The Granularity of Growth, strategy theorists Patrick Viguerie, Sven Smit, and Mehrdad Baghai note that most billion-dollar business ideas look like $200 million ideas at the outset. Big growth happens when a lot of little things catch fire together.

I often tell clients that a good way to kill an innovation department is to say that you will only work on big, disruptive ideas. The blind pursuit of the big prevents you from getting good at the game. Have you ever heard of a quarterback who plays only in Super Bowls or a basketball star who takes only full-court shots? If you want to make great ideas happen in your business, you need to embrace and come up with some great big ideas and a whole lot of great little ideas, too.

In celebration of little ideas, here’s a video of something I came up with a couple of years ago. It hasn’t changed the world, but I hope it brings a smile to your face.

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