For Big Innovation, Think Small

Last updated
March 29, 2024

What is your first thought when someone talks about “innovation” at your company? Most often, people think of “ground-breaking changes” or “big” ideas. In our experience, the next small thing is more beneficial. At Secure Records Solutions, we’ve made substantial gains by focusing on incremental innovations.  Instead of looking for the next game-changing product or service, we’ve encouraged our people to find a solution to a problem, or a better way of doing things.  Along the way, we’ve seeded the culture and creativity that leads to true innovation. Christopher Powell Jones shares a few recent examples in the article below.  We would love to know: how do you encourage innovation at your workplace?

As originally published by Owner & COO Christopher Powell Jones:

When I first joined the team at Secure Records Solutions, I knew we had a big problem that would require substantial change to the way we did business. Storing paper represented more than 80% of our revenue, and our clients were destroying records faster than they added new ones. I studied the industry’s history to look for clues about where we should go from here. I visited friends in businesses like ours around the country to learn from them. I talked to clients about what they needed. For several years, I didn’t make much progress. Looking back, I realize I was looking for the wrong thing. I was looking for something big.

A lot has changed since then. Revenue is up by 400%. Our team has grown by 600%. We were just named to the Inc 5000 list. As I look back on the 10 years leading up to this, there wasn’t a single big world-changing innovation. There were lots of small ones.

In October 2020 our entire team studied a TED Talk about Frugal Innovations. The premise was that frugal innovation is about coming up with amazing, simple solutions with fewer resources. Some of the most striking examples come from parts of the world with far fewer resources than we have. As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Innovation requires an impetus. There has to be some kind of motivation, or push, or catalyst that inspires you to innovate. You can’t do it from a comfortable place.

Recently we followed up on this exercise, out of necessity. Our management team was struggling with resource constraints resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic that continue to affect us, particularly worldwide supply chain and labor shortages. As each manager shared their version of the problem, I recalled our frugal innovation discussion. We have the same constraints as everyone else, so how do we work smarter than the rest? Instead of griping about what we lacked, we agreed to challenge our team to help us do more with what we have.

Our all-hands team meeting started with a recap of the many improvements COVID inspired us to make out of necessity, such as digitizing financial functions, investments in capacity, and leveraging technology to improve team communication, just to name a few. I asked if any team member had ever thought there might be a better way to do their job than the way they had been trained. Could they think of a process they are a part of that strikes them as inefficient? The room was silent. No one wanted to criticize our processes publicly. So I left the team with a challenge – email me directly to share their ideas for process improvement, with a financial reward for the best.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the ideas that came pouring in. The best were simple and easy to execute at virtually no cost. Two ideas will save wasted time during our indexing process, allowing each indexer to process more per hour, relieving our labor constraints and improving our ability to meet client timelines. One idea simply called for teamwork between our Operations and Client Services departments on shared processes, with a suggested approach that will speed up the delivery of client “scan on demand” requests by reducing the number of people involved in each request. One idea wasn’t possible with our existing software but led to a follow-up call with our software developer to challenge them to innovate. Another challenged our Sales team to get better logistical guidelines for Operations, in order to improve route efficiency. Our management team couldn’t stand picking one winner, so we picked three.

Each of these ideas came from the industry’s foremost experts at the processes in need of improvement: our staff who do these things every day. They were carrying these genius ideas around with them, and simply needed to be empowered and encouraged to make our business better. This exercise reminded me of the big innovation I was looking for when I first recognized our industry’s big problem 10 years ago.

Our natural response to big problems is to look for big solutions, but the fact is, big change rarely happens all at once in a stroke of genius. It happens one small innovation at a time. As I reflect on our success over the last 10 years, I can think of hundreds of small innovations that compounded to transform our company. The result is a culture of problem solving that is never satisfied with the way we’ve always done things.

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