Those who “think big” consider the full range of possible futures. They make sure that they understand the emerging context rather than assume that their current assumptions are right. They consider, for example, how large disruptive forces, like technology, deregulation and globalization, will change customer preferences, enable new markets and upend business dynamics. They are not too proud to explore doomsday scenarios, including how new developments might drive them out of business. And, rather than just looking for incrementally faster, better or cheaper improvements, they dare to dream big. Successful innovators are willing to start from a clean sheet of paper to pursue ideas that have the potential to rewrite the rules of a category, a company or even entire industries.
For example, even as Reed Hastings built the DVD business that toppled Blockbuster and the rest of the video rental business, he was guided by the big idea that mailing people DVDs was a mere way station on the road to streaming video on the Internet. That’s why he called his company “Netflix.” And, he continued to pursue his big idea, streaming video, even though it might someday render obsolete his wonderfully successful, highly tuned, mail-based system for distributing DVDs.
By contrast, those who fail typically think small. They assume that the future will be a slightly different version of the present. It’s human nature to see change as incremental and to think that our customers will stick with us. But, incremental thinking can be very dangerous. For example, Microsoft, Motorola, Blackberry and Nokia all missed the smartphone because it didn’t fit with their own technology assumptions, and they couldn’t envision how the iPhone might challenge their own products, upend strategic partnerships and endanger existing business models.
Successful innovators “start small” after thinking big. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon for one potentially big product, they break the idea down into smaller pieces for testing. They don’t allow themselves to make decisions solely on intuition or allow themselves to lock in on financial projections based on wishful thinking. They defer important decisions until they have real data.
After thinking big and starting small, success innovators “learn fast” by taking a scientific approach to innovation. They take the attitude that a demo is worth more than thousands of pages of business plans. They conduct extensive, inexpensive prototyping before they even get to the pilot phase — let alone the big rollout — so they can gather comprehensive information and quickly analyze both what’s working and what isn’t. They also don’t fall in love with their own ideas. The successes develop the institutional discipline to keep on asking the tough questions and are ready to set aside or alter projects based on what they learn, not what they hope.