The Culture of Innovation: The Synergy of the Big "I" and the Little "i"

This article sheds light on the dual nature of Innovation — Big "I" Innovation or the monumental leap versus, Little "i" Innovation or the continuous evolution.
The Culture of Innovation: The Synergy of the Big "I" and the Little "i"

In business today you do not have to go far to find an organization with an Innovation Center.  We live in a time of constant change where innovation has become the cornerstone of many successful companies. Organizations that embrace innovation are better positioned to adapt, thrive, and lead.

Innovation Centers could be called the "Big I" of innovation. They are formal investments often under the purview of one group or department. In some places, innovation may be viewed as the unique territory of one organization. This could stifle the development of tactical innovation within business units and operations.

For this discussion we will reference tactical innovation as “Little i”. Tactical innovations reduce the cost of existing processes, build confidence in operations, and can lead to better outcomes in Big I projects.

The dual nature of Innovation —

Big "I" Innovation: The monumental leap

Often associated with formal arrangements like Innovation Centers, Big "I" innovation represents the groundbreaking, disruptive advances that reshape industries and redefine possibilities. These are the transformative leaps that capture headlines and change the way we live, work, and interact.

Think of the introduction of the Internet, smartphones, and electric vehicles – these are all examples of Big "I" innovations that have reshaped entire ecosystems.

Big "I" innovation is marked by a strategic approach, significant investments in research and development, and a deliberate focus on creating entirely new products, services, or business models.

It is often the result of concentrated efforts and resources aimed at achieving breakthroughs that open new horizons.

Little "i" Innovation: The continuous evolution

On the other hand, Little "i" innovation is the consistent and incremental improvement that happens throughout daily operations. It's the collective effort of people at all levels to refine processes and enhance products or services.

Little "i" innovation is less about making giant leaps and more about taking small steps that, over time, accumulate into meaningful progress.

Unlike Big "I" innovation, Little "i" doesn't necessarily require massive investments or formal innovation centers. It thrives on a culture that values creativity and encourages experimentation.

People are empowered to contribute their ideas for improvement. Little "i" is about solving everyday challenges, making operations more efficient, and delivering incremental value to customers.

The Beautiful Symmetry of I(2)

While Big "I" and Little "i" innovations might seem distinct, they can interoperate to create a beautiful and complementary symmetry. The success of Big "I" innovation is greatly amplified when it's supported by a robust culture of Little "i" innovation.

  • Fertile ground for ideas: Little "i" innovation cultivates an environment where ideas are encouraged, shared, and refined. This idea-rich atmosphere provides a breeding ground for the novel concepts that eventually become the basis for Big "I" innovation.

  • End-to-end understanding: Little "i" innovation's focus on understanding processes end-to-end is crucial for the success of Big "I" initiatives. A deep understanding of existing processes helps organizations identify gaps, inefficiencies, and opportunities to make disruptive change sticky.

  • Risk-taking and experimentation: Little "i" encourages risk-taking on a smaller scale, fostering a culture that is more open to experimentation. This readiness to try new approaches translates into a willingness to embrace the uncertainties associated with Big "I."

  • Execution Excellence: The attention to detail that characterizes Little "i" innovation translates into better execution of Big "I" projects. When an organization has a strong foundation in incremental improvements, it is better equipped to manage the complexities of transformative innovations.

By cultivating a dual approach to innovation, where Big "I" and Little "i" coexist and amplify each other, organizations can establish a thriving ecosystem primed for growth, adaptation, and leadership in a rapidly changing world.

Cultivating a Culture of Innovation

  • Leadership commitment: Leaders must actively support and promote a culture of innovation at all levels. This includes recognizing and rewarding both Big "I" breakthroughs and Little "i" contributions.

  • Promote all innovation: Create an ecosystem where Big "I" and Little "i" wins are celebrated and tracked.

  • Create an incubator for change: Make technology and materials necessary for experimentation and development readily available. Embrace innovative methodologies that may already be in your organization. Lean, Six Sigma, and Agile are excellent examples.

  • Open communication: Foster an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas and insights, regardless of their scope. Encourage cross-functional collaboration to ensure diverse perspectives are considered. Consider hackathon events to promote the culture.

  • Learning from failure: Embrace failure as a valuable learning experience. Both Big "I" and Little "i" endeavors can encounter setbacks, but these setbacks often hold valuable insights for future successes.

  • Iterative improvement: Apply the principles of Little "i" to Big "I" projects. Break down ambitious innovation efforts into manageable phases, allowing for iterative improvements, and adjustments along the way.

  • Innovation for all: Ensure that everyone feels empowered to innovate and experiment.  Encourage people to express their intuition about their work and then help them act on it. Open and maintain clear communications between departments.

Getting there and staying

Organizations have different philosophies on innovation. Some benefit from explosive growth with large innovations, while others take a more conservative approach. One thing is certain, innovation must be sustained and vital to achieve long-term success. There are abundant examples of companies that came to the fore and then faded over time as they lost their way.

Take the example of Novell, a software company founded in 1981. They were innovators in pre-internet networking. Their Local Area Network (LAN) software was the foremost small business product in the world. They created an innovative approach to managing networks of computers and training people to deliver services over their platforms.

Over a short period, the organization created a reputation for having the best file and printer services in the industry. However, they did not see the importance of integration. Their products were difficult to integrate, and they had poor relationships with developers.

In this case, Novell chose to exclude itself from a large pool of innovators. These, among other practices, stifled innovation. Novell failed to adapt to the rise of the Internet and the growing popularity of integrated solutions. As a result, the company's market share declined and it eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2011.

Sustained innovation:

Apple, founded in 1976, is an example of a company that has both big “I” and little “i” innovation. Apple has a long history of introducing innovative products that have changed the way people interact with technology.

In the 1980s, Apple introduced the Macintosh computer, which was the first commercially successful personal computer with a graphical user interface. In the 1990s, Apple introduced the iMac, a colorful and easy-to-use desktop computer that helped to revive the company's fortunes.

In the 2000s, Apple introduced the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, all of which have become iconic products that have revolutionized their respective industries.

Apple has been able to sustain its innovation by focusing on a few key areas:

  • Ecosystem: Apple has established an ecosystem of development that maintains the gains from small innovations while enabling creativity and encouraging moon shots.

  • They leverage their ecosystem to interact with innovators. Take the Apple App Store as an example.

  • User experience: Apple products are known for their intuitive and user-friendly design. The company invests heavily in small “i” research and development to ensure that its products remain easy to use and enjoyable.

  • Integration: Apple products are tightly integrated with each other and with the company's cloud services. All of their products enjoy a robust development system that enables developers by removing the requirement to start from zero with every new delivery.


Novell and Apple took different approaches to innovation. Novell was able to achieve early success with its NetWare product, but failed to sustain a culture of innovation and eventually fell behind its competitors. Apple, on the other hand, has been able to sustain innovation by enabling big “I’ and little “i”. As a result, Apple has become one of the most successful companies in the world.

This synergy of innovation is potent. Big "I" innovation has the potential to be truly transformative, but its impact is maximized when it's supported by a culture that values continuous improvement, creativity, and collaboration – the hallmarks of Little "i" innovation.

About the author:

David Sims is a people-first leader with a passion for making the complex more relatable. He has a proven track record of building and leading high-performing teams that deliver innovative and secure solutions.

He is skilled at balancing business and security requirements with execution and is committed to creating a culture of high performance and responsibility.

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