The Power of Little Ideas

Reviewed on , book by David C. Robertson

The premise in the book is that existing innovation books focus on disruption, step-changes, and greenfield, when in reality many of the best products are formed through continuous innovation around a key product.

An example from the book I liked is that of HGH (human growth hormone) therapy, used to treat especially development-disorders. HGH injections suck. It’s a daily needle injection. So, Novo Nordisk (a major Danish pharmaceutical company) innovated around that key product. They made their needles super sharp, to reduce pain and discomfort. They provided a carrying case for injections for free, to make travel easier. Instead of a slider, they had an easy-to-use button. And many other small conveniences that all added up to doctors consistently recommending the Novo Nordisk product over others. Similar reasons why many prefer daily contact lenses.

Competitors are typically slow to notice this type of innovation (what the book in an annoying self-important tone keeps referring to as the ‘third way’, reminiscent of the mean girl who tried to make ‘fetch’ happen) are usually slow to notice. It’s also the type of improvements that are a function of culture. Small improvements like these come from the people on the ground: account managers, sales, .. the people that deal directly with customers. Does the organization properly allow for those ideas to be implemented or does it have to come from some biochemist who’s never met a patient who’s in charge of R&D?

There’s a bigger lesson in that: Big ideas are cheap, it’s the sum of the little ideas make up the product. Any executive can say “we’re building a cloud!”, but a great Cloud product is coherent through all the ‘small’ ideas from the 100s of teams working on it.

Innovating around a key product doesn’t always work. If someone invents an HGH-pill, Nordisk is done. They have to invest there too. Kodak wouldn’t be saved from digital photography this way.

The raw content of the book is decent, but the structure made it a frustrating experience. Kept shoving this 4-step model down your throat in different forms, re-using similar examples from the same companies, and ugh. At some point, I had to close the book.