The Management Series

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Aug 2017

Big Ideas Are Fine but Not Necessary

In the age of disruption and innovation, we often think success has to be driven by a big idea.

But David Robertson, a professor of operations, information and decisions practice at the Wharton business school, urges companies to work with the solid products and services they have on hand and focus on innovations that complement those products and services.

Think “around the box,” Robertson told Knowledge@Wharton in a podcast.

Robertson, author of the book The Power of Little Ideas, illustrated his approach by recalling when he had his house painted several years ago.

The contractor he hired told him he planned to use Sherwin-Williams paint, which Robertson regarded as good paint but more expensive than other comparable or even better paints. When he asked the painter about using one of the less expensive paints instead, the painter said he could but that he would have to charge him considerably more for the job.

When Robertson asked why, the painter said that the paint was only about 15% of the cost of a job. Sherwin Williams provided logistical help and advice that enabled him to hold his costs down.

Recounting the painter’s explanation, Robertson said, “What Sherwin-Williams does is help me through the entire process of working with you…During the project, it is keeping me supplied—I can return extra primer if I don’t need it. If I run out of something, that Sherwin-Williams rep will be over at the site, delivering what I need. Then, at the end, he helps me put together that next proposal. Because there’s always a next proposal.”

Robertson pointed to the proliferation of Sherwin-Williams stores in many cities, saying they outnumbered Starbucks in his area.

“Sherwin-Williams…realized it’s not so much about the product—their product is a can of paint—it’s about their innovations around the product that make that product more valuable,” he said.

Robertson said most company leaders see innovation in “a binary way.” They either make incremental changes to an existing product or develop something revolutionary. What he is advocating is to get business leaders to ask, “How do we take our existing product and make it more compelling, make it more valuable for our customers?”

He then walks listeners through four steps they can use to apply that middle-ground approach.

Some of those steps are relatively easy and simple common sense, such as identifying your key products or services, your “crown jewels.”

Others are far more difficult. Robertson suggests, for example, that his approach will only really work if a company reorganizes its staff.

“If you’re a company that’s good at product development, developing a better version of your product or service, then you have probably set up roles and responsibilities, and structured processes, metrics, reward systems, that make you very good at that,” he said. “But that actually prevents this approach to innovation. “

Start small and start with few strictures, Robertson advises. “Get a team organized around some product, and give them the freedom to really think more broadly than just about the product or service. Rather, give the team the mandate to start thinking about other services, partners, channels to market, whatever, that will really help your customers get more value from the product.”

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