Small Innovations are Neat, but Big I Creates Real Growth

Only 14% of all innovation is “Big I”, but it results in 61% of all growth.

Most of us strive to create “Small I” innovations every day. A better process for retaining guests. A more efficient way to track paper costs. A social media strategy that results in incrementally better engagement. And so on.

But it’s the “Big I” innovation that results in entirely new movements. It’s what disrupts industries, creates jobs, and  impacts thousands of people. Small innovations are helpful, but we need big innovations if we want to create real growth.

Further, Small I rarely leads to Big I. Big I is something else entirely.


Innovation is creative thinking, applied.

Firs, the prerequisite caveat: why innovate at all?

Churches often shrink away from innovation because it sounds too corporate, but we are made to create, and innovation is simply creative thinking, applied to specific problems.

Growth isn’t the goal, per se; it’s the outcome of a focus on creativity, which is the act of engaging our natural, God-given talents and tasks—the “good things”—we’ve been given to do with our lives.While not all growing things are healthy, healthy things grow. Likewise, a healthy church grows, and often suddenly, like flowers across a desert floor.

And when our creativity results in a finished work that helps others, which influences others, then that’s innovation. Innovation is creativity that delivers. Innovation is what we’re made to do.


There is a spectrum of innovation from Small I to Big I.

Not all innovations are the same. When we say the word innovation, most of us think of a few grandiose examples such as the wheel, electricity, and indoor plumbing. But according to George Day of the Wharton Business School, as quoted in Harvard Business Review, there’s a spectrum of innovation that includes both Small I – incremental improvements – and Big I – sector-wide disruptors.

Both Small I and Big I are necessary. For example, the airplane and the Internet are Big I innovations that changed the world, they wouldn’t be where they are as industries without a load of small I improvements, refinements and perfections.

Another way to think about this is distinguish Innovators and Perfecters. Innovators and Perfecters exist in every field. Mozart was a Big I Innovator and Handel a Small I perfecter. Or Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis.


Small I is what most of us focus on everyday.

Most people are focused on Small I innovation and incremental growth. Small I accounts for 86% of all organizational resources. These are necessary for a healthy, functioning organizations, including churches. Industries can spend decades working on fine tuning improvements that refine and squeeze out better returns on our work. And this is fine.


Big I is what gets us going in the morning.

But it is the Big I innovation – the game changers, the life changers – that result in exponential growth. According to Day, while only 14% of all innovation is Big I, Big I innovation results in 61% of all growth.

Day writes, “It’s the risky, Big I projects — new to the company or new to the world — that push the firm into adjacent markets or novel technologies.”

Here are a few examples of Big I thinking:

  • In the early 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor revolutionized manufacturing by shifting production from a focus on individual craftsmanship to a sequence of repetitive tasks. His model of management still drives much of who we lead today.
  • Three decades after the Wright Brothers’ famous flight, Frank Whittle filed a patent for a turbojet engine. His idea sat in a lab for a decade, but eventually inaugurated the golden age of modern airline travel which lasted 30 years and only ended when government deregulated the industry, invited competition, and led to the inevitable downshift to price.
  • Thomas Bramwell Welch figured out how to bottle juice from a grape without it fermenting, and in the process changed 1900 years of church tradition. Now, entire populations of Christendom would never consider taking the Lord’s Supper with an actual alcoholic beverage.
  • Whoever brought a drum kit into a church sanctuary for the first time undoubtedly suffered and died, but launched an entire new movement of music in worship which led to an explosion of new worship plants, venues and worship services.

These examples were brought with risk, and often the innovators didn’t reap the fruits of their own work. Yet their vision changed millions of lives.


Small I doesn’t lead to Big I.

Healthy endeavors, organizations and industries need both Small I and Big I.

But the problem is that most organizations, including churches, gravitate toward smaller and smaller innovations, refining and processing until there’s little improvement left. And it’s a select few big ideas that create the sea change upgrades on which every organization, society, and civilization moves forward.

When a congregation is new, a church plant, everything is an innovation – some ideas are big and some are little. If a church is good at navigating the innovations happening in the church world and in the culture at large, and knows how to apply them to their own environment and context, that church will grow. But here’s the problem. Eventually time takes over, and those new ideas start to flatline.

In fact there’s a statistic for that. The vast majority of all churches start to plateau and decline after their 15th year, as noted by the number of adult baptisms that occur at the church.

So if your church is over 15 years old and you want it to grow, what do you do?

Well, you could focus on refining, on improving your parking situation, and so on – and these are all necessary and good. I love building effective systems to create order from chaos.

Here is a good example of some Small I suggestions for churches, based on my research of fast growing churches, which says that churches should focus on better parking lot visibility, focusing on both big groups and small groups, and planting new churches, among other things.


We need more Big I.

These are great suggestions. Most such articles are full of Small I suggestions. But the real growth – the Big I – doesn’t come from Small I improvements. Big I is something different entirely.

Where does Big I come from? Next, I’ll talk about one source for Big I innovation.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).