A couple of years ago, Canadian sustainable design guru Lloyd Alter made a convincing case for a “small movement”: smaller homes, cities, cars, and computers. One of the huge advantages that comes to mind is increased mobility and versatility. Something small fits in places (for example gaps between cars, or pockets of tight jeans) where something big doesn’t. This is a simple observation but it’s not the only reason why you would want to make something smaller.
Probably the most important “small movement,” which continues to produce major technological advances is nanotechnology. Nanotechnology shows that making things smaller can make a big difference. Some of the benefits in fields as diverse as aerospace and tourism are listed here.
But nanotechnology isn’t an isolated phenomenon. There are more visible changes in size that make big differences.
Nanotechnology comes on the back of century-long trend in making technology increasingly smaller. Think of the size of the first computers (the Cambridge Differential Analyser occupied an entire room, as did the aptly-named Colossus, which the Allies used for code-breaking in WWII), and you’ll see how much things have changed. In effect, we’ve gone from the Colossus in the Iron Age of computing hardware to the modern iPod Nano, a device that can fit in your pocket with millions of times the capacity of the earliest computers. Whether Moore’s legendary law according to which the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every 18 months to two years is broken or not, we’ve gone amazingly small compared to the early computer age.
But on more mundane levels, making things small can also have great impact. A trend in downsizing CD collections into more manageable digital libraries, which Alter points out, is almost universal now, as are notebook instead of desktop computers. We can probably expect this trend to continue. The development of Twitter and URL-shortening as a more streamlined version of the Facebook status also come to mind.
Alter’s more general point was made at the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, and he advocated downsizing mainly for economic reasons. But the “think small” mentality can also have benefits for companies trying to innovate and gain a competitive edge. I want to focus here on three noteworthy examples of this which I think might be instructive.
Make it small to find ways to new markets
To take a non-technological example, think of the changes in size of the Toblerone chocolate bar. It was originally sold in large bars. At airports, you also got the extra-large gift edition. Both – quite clearly – were intended for consumption at home. But when I last took a plane, I was surprised by an offer for a mini-version of Toblerone with my cup of espresso. This may seem rather lackluster, but it isn’t. Change in size has opened new markets for Toblerone. Not only has personal consumption on the go become easy, but now Toblerone can also be sold in small shops where it wasn’t available before. A marketing innovation has thus become possible: sponsoring coffee and Toblerone deals, which in turn builds the brand image and encourages people to try Toblerone while on the go at train stations, airports, or cafes. And all this is a result of shrinking the Toblerone bar.
Make it small to protect customers from themselves
In a similar vein, Kraft disrupted the German chocolate box market by making boxes smaller. This was a major change in a country where the family pack was the standard. According to a Kraft employee I talked to, the idea really came to them when an overweight employee said in a workshop: “The problem is really that when I open a box, I won’t stop until it’s empty!”
Well, one way to answer this was just to make the box smaller. Decreasing the size of the box here didn’t aim at making the boxes more portable, but to help customers manage their eating-habits: Kraft’s 100-calorie packs were born, and made Kraft $ 75 Million the first year. Granola bars, cheese bites, chocolate pretzels, ritz crackers – basically everything that Kraft already made was suddenly available in smaller packs. The idea that initially consisted of making boxes smaller is now widely imitated – even though the boxes don’t actually lower consumption.
Shrink it for Ease of Access
Consider loyalty cards. Traditionally, loyalty cards were the same size and thickness as credit or debit cards. The sheer number of cards–of any type–which most people carry around at all times can increase quickly. The cards used most often, though, are obviously banking cards, followed probably by various types of identity cards. In this ever-increasing barage of cards, how would something as trivial as a loyalty cards stand out? Now, you don’t need all the space of a credit card for the kind of barcode found on most loyalty cards. I don’t even know who first came up with the idea, but someone shrank a loyalty card down to about the quarter of its original size. The present size of some of the cards reminds me of an old-fashioned train or raffle ticket. But the innovation didn’t end there. A small hole was added to one of the corners, and suddenly the loyalty card could be put on a key chain. No need to fumble through your wallet in search of the loyalty card while holding up the queue.
Many other examples could have been chosen, but I think they make the point well. Innovation can sometimes be as easy as changing the size of something. So by way of conclusion, I want to present four basic tips for facilitating the kind of minor tinkering I mentioned above.
1. Keep Track of Ideas
It’s never possible to know exactly when a good idea will strike. But we all know when it does. Keep a running list of your ideas, so that you don’t forget them. An idea which comes to you in one context might not work very well initially, but it might turn out to be very useful in another. This won’t lead to any radical retooling of anything, but it might result in the critical small change that can make an older invention really successful. Carry around a small notebook or some other means of keeping track of your ideas.
2. Free Up Your Time
Time is a necessary resource for innovation. You don’t need to exhaust yourself working overtime to innovate. It can be as simple as purging your business of the clutter of outdated technology, and time-wasting habits. Sometimes a more efficient product, or a faster means of producing it is all you need.
3. Look Outside
Don’t be afraid to go beyond the knowledge and skills within your business. Look outside for resources to succeed including capital, joint ventures, strategic alliances, and strong relationships with suppliers. Consider Open problem-solving platforms as well. You never know where you’ll find a useful idea.
4. Focus on the Customer
It’s always easiest to see your business from your own perspective. But if you do only this, you will miss the customers’ view. Big companies are notorious for innovating on the inside, coming up with things that only infuriate customers. Think of Microsoft Bob, for instance. But if the innovation makes you feel uncomfortable but delights the customer, don’t be afraid to use it: you’ve almost certainly done something right. Paying attention to customer feedback is essential here.
Klaus-Peter Speidel is the VP of Communications at hypios, which provides enterprises with open innovation ecosystems.