Friday, December 12, 2008

The Paradox of Being Big, But Working Small

Interesting post on size and innovation. So how can we apply this to education? Clearly small, agile colleges are better positioned to innovate quickly. In a small college, we can iterate many times in a short period of time - eventually leading to innovation. Unfortunately, small eventually becomes large and with large comes inertia and bureaucracy and stifled innovation. So the challenge becomes how do we stay small, even as we become big? I think an organization that values small, can build a culture which encourages and empowers small innovative groups to form. These groups could take the form of little pilot projects, but it's critical to give them some autonomy, to let them iterate, and probably most importantly to let them fail. Never forget the mantra of innovative design firm IDEO:
"fail often to succeed sooner"
Grassroots Innovation: Innovation Speed Is Size Dependent
Being big means that you don't move as fast as you could when you were small. Take for example Yahoo's changes to their homepage. Scared of alienating anyone with website changes Yahoo is slowly making small changes.

This is in stark contrast to how you operate when you are small. When you are small there is no one to alienate so you simply make the changes and see what happens.

Both approaches are the right approaches to take and both have there drawbacks.

In a big company small changes mean big dollars so you need to make sure you know what you are doing (remember new formula Coke?). When you are innovating along the same s-curve the danger is low. Conversely because you are moving slow you are unable to see a disruptive innovation (ala Kodak who actually invented the digital camera).

In a small company you have no resources and no large install base so making changes is not as big deal. Therefore in order to survive you need to iterate rapidly in order to find a formulation that works. The drawback is that you may change too often for the likes of you customers or find a solution that is easily copied by the large incumbent. In either case you risk being vanquished.

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