The Power of Little Ideas
A Low-Risk, High-Reward Approach to Innovation
We tend to imagine innovation as slow, incremental change or else industry-shifting disruption. Yet for most companies, neither works. In The Power of Little Ideas, MIT Sloan professor David Robertson outlines a third way of innovation—actual working strategies for world-class companies that build on his co-authored, groundbreaking study of Lego’s near-collapse and rise, Brick by Brick.
David Robertson has devoted his working life to innovation—he’s been a student, teacher, and practitioner of the art of how leading companies practice genuine change for his entire career. As the host of the Wharton podcast Innovation Navigation (available on iTunes and Sirius XFM), he interviews leaders from around the world about creativity in business—companies that offer space to be creative, but direction to deliver.
“The story of how Lego came perilously close to disaster but then transformed itself into one of the most successful and innovative companies in the world serves both as an inspiration and an object lesson.”— Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail
In his new book The Power of Little Ideas, Robertson argues for a ‘third way’ between slow, incremental change and radical disruption—a low-risk, high-reward strategy that calls for complementary innovations around a core product or service. As he explains, companies like Gatorade, Wegman’s, Novo Nordisk, Lego, Victoria’s Secret, and others were either tired, second to market, challenged by tough competition, or on their way to becoming a commodity. But each were each able to expand and recover spectacularly by innovating around the box—creating ecosystems of products that made their central product or service irresistible to customers. Little Ideas is powerful, practical, cogent and necessary—and Robertson translates this transformative book into refreshingly useful keynotes.
In his previous book Brick by Brick, Robertson gave the definitive account of one of the most profound business transformations in recent memory. In 2003, Lego almost went bankrupt. The company failed to adapt to the revolutionary changes in children’s lives and began sliding into irrelevance. Advice from innovation experts almost led the company to ruin, and the future looked bleak for one of America’s most iconic brands. Why didn’t newly developed products and businesses—including theme parks, computer games, electronic toys, and clothing—save the company? The answer wasn’t just innovation—it was innovation management. Lego needed an entirely new system of processes, tools, roles, and policies that governed creative thinking. Once that was in place, the company re-emerged more powerful, resilient, and inventive than ever.
Throughout Brick by Brick—named one of the Best Books of the Year by Fortune and Strategy + Business—Robertson presents the strategies Lego used to become a customer-driven, full-spectrum, open, and adventurous brand. “Any manager can learn from these lessons,” writes Forbes. And in his funny, fascinating, and often interactive talks, he makes Lego’s success a case study any company can use to grow and evolve—and become iconic.
Today, Robertson is a Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management. Formerly, as a Professor of Practice at the Wharton School, Robertson taught Innovation and Product Development in the undergraduate, MBA, and executive education programs. From 2002 through 2010, Robertson was the LEGO Professor of Innovation and Technology Management at Switzerland’s Institute for Management Development (IMD), which received the #1 worldwide ranking by The Financial Times for its executive education programs. At IMD, he was Program Director for IMD’s largest program, the Program for Executive Development, and co-Director of the Making Business Sense of IT program, a joint program between IMD and MIT Sloan.
Robertson also serves as a consultant to companies on innovation and technology management issues. He worked as a consultant for McKinsey & Company for five years and an executive at four enterprise software companies. He received his PhD from the MIT Sloan School in 1990.
Today, companies are often caught between two ways of ‘doing’ innovation. The first involves the incremental improvement of existing products, or simply spinning out another variant—but that rarely means breakthrough success. And the second means a radical, revolutionary disruption of your entire industry. But while thrilling, this is of course high-cost, high-risk, and rarely applicable for most organizations.
Now, in a talk based on his new book The Power of Little Ideas, David Robertson outlines a third way. Rather than thinking too narrowly, or too disruptively, great companies innovate around the box. This means surrounding your key products—what made you great in the first place—with complementary innovations, or a supportive ecosystem of goods that broaden your appeal but don’t alter your central services or values. Gatorade did it by offering products meant for consumption before, during, and after performance—not by extending its range of flavored drinks. Victoria’s Secret did it by expanding into swimwear, CDs, fragrances and toiletries—not by releasing yet another bra. With reference to these, and other companies that get it—Disney, GoPro, Red Bull, Apple, Amazon, LEGO, and more—Robertson outlines the profound changes you’ll need to make to your internal processes, structure, rewards, roles, and systems to pull it off. Innovation can be logical, sustainable, and reliable. And with Robertson, you can foster a low-risk, high-reward strategy for practical change—and channel the little ideas that lead to big things.