Check out these three ways to make small thoughts into big ideas!

Last week I was at the Centric Consulting Spring Meeting (#CentricThrive). It’s always a great time, with opportunities to connect with colleagues from all over the company and share ideas.

The organizers shook things up a bit this year by having a panel discussion on Thursday night. One of the great questions asked was, “What is your definition of innovation?”

This prompted quite a bit of discussion. Among other points, it was suggested that if an innovation isn’t marketable, it’s just an idea.

Lots of good ideas were discussed, but I felt that a lot of them equated “innovation” with “disruption”. Disruption, of course, seems to be the word of the decade. What with Uber and the sharing economy, Google and autonomous cars, disruption is in every discussion, every day. Everybody with pretensions of being a tech wizard or a venture capitalist wants to be the next disrupter, and established companies worry about being on the receiving end of it.

But where does that leave the rest of us? What about those of us who aren’t ready to quit our jobs, triple-mortgage the house, and create a start-up? Are we just supposed to sit and wait for the innovation monster to nibble away at the economy until none of the rest of us have jobs left (see Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut)?

Actually, I think there’s plenty of room for the rest of us. The trick is to start small and build from there.

Here are three practical tips for innovation in real life:

  1. Look at where you can create small improvements within your own sphere of influence. That’s something you can do that right now. Just making a process work better using some clever new approach: that’s innovation, too.  A small improvement can lead to big things! Think about power outlets in airports. Fifteen years ago, there were two publicly available power outlets in all of O’Hare Concourse B (I know – I went looking for them one day when my flight was delayed and my computer was losing power). Now, outlets are part of the chairs. That’s innovation! It’s a small idea matched to something people could really use, and now companies make (and sell) public seating with built-in power outlets.
  2. The innovation doesn’t have to be in the “what”, it can be in the “how”. Or, to put it another way, it can just be a nifty feature added to something that someone else has already invented. Microsoft built a smartphone in 2007 (same year as the Apple iPhone emerged), and it was a pretty powerful Windows device. But what happened? Why are so many more millions of people carrying Apple phones? The iTunes store, that’s why. Apple opened the gates to let other people create things for the device. Now, people could have done the same thing for the Microsoft phone; it wasn’t a closed platform. But there was no App Store. The app market was killer innovation. That also takes us back to the quote from one of our speakers.  “If it’s not marketable, it’s not innovation”. Well, maybe or maybe not – but maybe you don’t always know what people will use something for when you sell it. Didn’t Steve Jobs say that he didn’t know what people were going to use the iPad for? If you just went on what an iPad did out of the box, you might have said it wasn’t very useful. But Apple gave us a blank slate, and people found millions of uses for it.
  3. Lastly, don’t stop the innovation because it doesn’t seem big enough. If someone had shown me Twitter in 2006, I would have asked what the big deal was. Oh, goody: people can broadcast messages of up to 140 characters to their “followers”. There didn’t seem to be enough there to be excited about. In my mind at that time, “innovation” had to be something big, like self-driving cars. Even a small idea, though, can grow into something big. That really struck me at my last company. The president was a visionary, always looking for that next magical thing. It led him to look at small things and see the bigger things inside, building entire businesses out of ideas that others thought were too small to be of value.

One point raised during the panel struck a chord with a lot of people. I don’t remember the exact wording, so I’ll paraphrase: creativity and innovation are skills, not gifts.

Let that sink in a moment. Creativity is a skill, just another tool in your professional toolbox. You don’t need to wait for blue bolts from the heavens – or permission – to put them to work. Your creativity tools are on your desk right now, ready for you to use!

This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.