Book Review: The Power of Little Ideas

  |   Books Print Friendly and PDF

A good book review should answer the question, “Should I buy this book?” If you’re a senior executive in a large corporation, one that has lots of specialized positions, like financial analyst, and product development managers, and senior vice presidents of marketing, The Power of Little Ideas: A Low-Risk, High-Reward Approach to Innovation is for you. Put it on your must-read list if you’re in a senior position that gives you the ability to make changes across those specialties in your company.

What if you’re someone else? What if you’re a manager in a large company but not one with the power to change the way the entire company does business? Or, what if you’re in a small business, one where people tend to get involved with all the functions of the business? Or, what if you are simply fascinated with innovation and how it works in business? You will probably like this book. There are a lot of good things here, and many of them will stimulate your thinking. But you can skip whole sections of the book, because they will not apply to you anytime soon.

David Robertson says that: “This book is meant for anyone whose job is to extract maximum value from an important product.” He calls the method he advocates “The Third Way.” Here’s what’s in the book.

Robertson begins the book with an excellent preface about seeing innovation differently. Then he moves on to a chapter about how little innovations produce big results. There, he says that, “The third way is not a replacement for incremental improvements or disruptive innovations; rather, it’s another option that every business leader should understand and consider when faced with an innovation challenge.”

At the end of this chapter, there is an excellent sidebar called “Comparing the Third Way to Other Innovation Approaches.” This sidebar alone may be worth the price of the book.

Roberts describes two schools of thought about innovation. Essentially, one is about where to innovate, and the other is about how to innovate.

The “where to innovate” section includes brief descriptions and comparisons of:

  • The Ansoff Innovation Matrix
  • The Traditional Product Development Approach
  • Disruptive Innovation
  • Blue Ocean Strategy
  • Lean Startup Theory

The “how to innovate” section of the sidebar includes the following:

  • Design Thinking
  • Innovating Your Company’s Value Chain: Full-Spectrum Innovation
  • Innovating the Customer’s Value Chain: Jobs to Be Done Analysis and Consumption Chain Analysis

The next chapter is about LEGO and Apple, who are called “Masters of The Third Way.” This chapter’s a good read because it raises a lot of issues. I particularly liked it because of the treatment of Apple Computer. This is not the typical, “Steve Jobs as a miracle worker” narrative. It’s a good description of how and when things happened and what worked and didn’t work at Apple.

The next chapter is titled “The Four Decisions and Why They’re Difficult.” There’s a lot of very rich material about why key decisions that are obvious or conceptually easy are difficult to get right and often difficult to implement. Here are the four decisions.

  • Decision One: What Is Your Key Product?
  • Decision Two: What Is Your Promise for Your Key Product?
  • Decision Three: How Will You Innovate Around Your Key Product?
  • Decision Four: How Will You Deliver Your Innovations?

According to Robertson, to manage a third way project, you need a third way process. In other words, doing things the way you’ve always done them will probably get you the results you’ve always gotten.

There’s nothing new or startling there, but it’s the key to the reason why this book has different value for senior executives in large companies compared with the rest of us. If you’re a small business, or even a mid-sized one, it’s possible to get your key players all in a room and discuss whether or not you want to follow this different method. If you’re in a big company, well, it’s another story entirely. It illustrates why it’s very, very hard for anything very, very big to get anything done.

The book is about paying attention to the entire customer experience. Different writers have been writing about this for decades. If you’re running a restaurant, the quality of your food is important, and so is the service. But the quest for a great customer experience doesn’t end there.

Context is important. A fine dining restaurant has different standards than a pizza restaurant. And lots of things matter beyond the food and the service. There’s price, and parking, and how easy it is to make a reservation or get in.

Whether you’re in a big company or a small company, your success isn’t based on one or two factors. It’s based on factors that range across the entire experience of the customer and your entire process for producing that experience.

If you’re in a small company, or you’re just interested in reading about innovation, you can stop right here. There’s plenty of value in the book for you. The rest of the book is really for those senior executives in great big businesses.

In the latter part of the book, you’re treated to discussions about stage-gate, processes, breaking down silos, and phrases like the following: “Companies often have rigid cost accounting systems that require tightly-defined business cases. The result can be divergence of objectives, resulting in sub-teams that strive to optimize their individual profit pictures at the expense of the whole.”

In A Nutshell

If you’re part of a small business that can get your decision-makers in a room and decide to try something new, buy The Power of Little Ideas, it’s great. You’ll learn a lot about innovation and different innovation systems, and about Robertson’s approach to addressing the entire business and customer experience. And, you can do that without reading the last 2/3 of the book. If you’re a senior executive in a large company with the ability to influence the way the entire company does business, this whole book is good for you, if you’re willing to take on the challenges that the author describes.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.


What’s the fastest way to learn the big ideas from a great business book? Book summaries. Check out summaries from The Business Source, where you can watch, read, or listen to the big ideas from a great book in under 20 minutes.

Join The Conversation

What People Are Saying

There are no comments yet, why not be the first to leave a comment?