Little Innovations Matter

by John Steen

Little Innovations MatterWhat’s better…. a lot of little innovations or one big innovation? If we had to choose, would it better to have an economy made up of a lot of firms trying to make small improvements to their business or do we want a game-changer like Apple or Google?

The big innovations are glamorous and they become part of business folklore. Governments then spend a lot of effort trying to replicate the success of these companies by supporting businesses that might turn into the next Microsoft, GSK or Samsung. The trouble is that we need to go through a veritable haystack of businesses to eventually get these needles that grow from nothing to become global leaders in their industry.

In hindsight we can say that Apple was always going to become a great business but hindsight is a misleading science. Someone who pointed to two strange kids (Jobs and Wozniak) at the Homebrew Club for computing enthusiasts in the 1970s saying that this is the beginning of one of the most influential businesses of the early 21st century would be laughed at. Pity we can’t put a bet on a horse at the finish of the race.

But what about the little innovations that go unnoticed in typical businesses around town? These are often experiments in products, supply chains or production processes that can be the beginning of new business models. While they don’t attract the attention of the big innovations, they are extremely valuable and when many businesses start accumulating innovations we can see a new growth industry appear that creates wealth for those businesses and other supporting industries in the region.

Personally, I love the little innovations where a small business has found an ingenious way to tackle a problem or position themselves differently in the market place. Why? Because most businesses in any region employ less than 100 people. Learning from these firms and then sharing this learning with other small businesses is a great way to encourage innovation.

Last week we launched the Brisbane Innovation Scorecard and a major part of the report was the survey that showed that 65% of a random sample of 372 Brisbane organizations had introduced some form of innovation in the past three years. Like any city, the majority of these organizations were small businesses. The scorecard launch itself was a celebration of innovation, which attracted a lot of attention from both businesses and government in the Brisbane region. The following YouTube video is a nice little summary of the launch.

Most innovation awards focus on the high tech and although there was one business in the featured group of companies that is genuinely high tech, the others were in industries such as construction, hospitality, not for profit and mining that are usually overlooked when we think about innovation. In all cases they had innovated to improve critical areas of the business. Mining companies with step changes in processing technology, restauranteurs with novel approaches to organizing food supplies and safety training packages for electrical contractors were all featured. Looking at these successes enables other managers to think about changes that could be made to their own businesses. The following link is a radio interview that I did late last week talking about these case studies.

ABC radio interview with John Steen on Brisbane Innovation Scorecard

For those of you who can make it to Brisbane on Tuesday 23rd of August, Tim and I will be running a masterclass on successfully managing innovation. Thanks to support from Enterprise Connect, there is no charge for the workshop. We will start at 7:30am with a keynote talk over breakfast and conclude at midday. The masterclass will be held at the UQ Business School city facility at Central Plaza 1 on the corner of Creek and Queen Streets. Seats are limited so you will need to reserve your seat early. Please register your interest with an email to

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John SteenJohn Steen is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

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