How to filter me-too ideas and leave small thinking behind

innovation evaluating between big ideas and small This is a three part post on how to leave small thinking behind. In the first post, I showed you a simple technique for coming up with radical ideas. Here I talk about how to evaluate ideas so they don’t fit into the “me-too” territory. On the third post I’ll tell you how to determine which ideas might work.

We think too small, like the frog at the bottom of the well. He thinks the sky is only as big as the top of the well. If he surfaced, he would have an entirely different view. – Mao Tse-tung

I know a handful of people that work in the “innovation/entrepreneurship space” who talk a good talk but when it’s time to put the wheels on the road, more times than not, they revert to small thinking. Heck, I’ve even heard people outright say they think big but when challenged further they are shocked to their bones.

This isn’t an isolated scenario, most everyone is like this. Heck, how many companies plaster their physical and digital (Facebook) walls with inspirational quotes, but when you look inside you see that their actions don’t reflect their wishful thinking.

When you’re looking for innovative ideas that will truly differentiate your company and have major market impact, you must set the yardstick high and keep it high. You may think you’ve left small thinking behind, but often, even if you are benchmarking outside your industry, challenging the status quo of your business, or radicalizing your current strategy, small thinking will creep in. It most always does.


Small thinking always creeps in because it’s human nature to choose the uncreative, to propose something safer and smaller in scope, to tone down an innovative idea. People or organizations that pursue small thinking exhibit a combination of bias for action but with limited risk. In other words, they are not willing to put their neck out there. That’s the challenge we have to overcome if we’re to come up with and implement big ideas!

How do you leave small thinking behind?

Two ways:

Through the evaluation process

How you keep the yardstick high? First, you have to involve the right people. Beware of bureaucratic tendencies and procedures. Second, trust your gut. Yes, your gut is important. You don’t want to apply analytical criteria at the beginning to kill the idea immediately, that comes later.

Other things to consider when including other people in the evaluation process is to recognize that there are some of us who are more sensitive to “me-too” ideas. We know intuitively when something is of the small thinking variety, and so we’re better equipped to judge whether it is challenging or not. As a result, we’re also more capable of surfacing dogmas and challenging the status quo.

For example, this post was triggered because of one such situation I had last week where we need to make a strategic decision with regards to the design of an activity of a new venture I’m working on. For various reasons, my co-founder regressed to the simplest and most uncreative idea possible, while I wanted to go with the approach that had the most punch. At the end, my approach won. Why? Because I’m the type of dude who pushes beyond the comfort zone to not fall into “me-too” territory.

Me-too-ism is something you can and should avoid at the beginning of any project. But, if you’re not a natural at challenging the status quo you can ask yourself these questions:

  • What are we changing?
  • What is it that only we can do that competitors will not do?
  • How might we set the standard and make it so challenging that other won’t even consider doing it?

Basically, you do not need to do something your competitors cannot copy. It is enough to do something they will not copy. Either way, you have advance uncontested.

Back to the criteria. When helping teams/companies develop ideas, I use the following “Game-Changer Criteria” approach:

  • Creativity. Creative solutions are solutions that are new, innovative, or unprecedented against a comparison point. In evaluating whether an idea is creative, start by comparing it with what has been done before. Ask yourself: Is our idea really innovative and unprecedented? Compare it with what your organization has done in the past. Ask yourself: Is it really a new step for our company, something that has not been done before in some shape or form?
  • Business Impact. Big ideas have a big impact. They change markets, transform industries and the companies that launch them. Ask yourself: are our ideas really up for the task? To judge them, you must ask what the potential business impact could be if the idea succeeds. Various measures are used to evaluate business impact (sales, revenues, market share, brand value, etc) depending on the tangible business objectives that are most valued by an organization.
  • People Impact. Big ideas transform people. What will customers become? How will their lives be different? What will they stop doing?

Preemptive strike

A second option, is if you believe wholeheartedly in your big idea, and have the conviction to act and change the conversation, then leapfrog the previous point and go straight to doing. Build up a prototype, something that shows your idea in action. Or simply just act on what you think should be done and become the prototype. I’m impatient and most of the time just a have a good feeling about something, so this is my “modus operandi”. It’s not for everyone. But, if you see that there are many obstacles to progress ahead because your organization is in zombie mode, don’t care what others think, and are not afraid to stir the pot, don’t ask for permission to act and just do it. Change the game!

Small thinking is the enemy if you really want to shake things up

I’m  an extremist, so sticking my neck out there and doing something that hasn’t been done before is what really gets me excited. This post reflects that. But, hopefully I’ve given you an idea as to how to kick small thinking in the butt, with following some guidelines.

Two more things:

  • Intuitive and analytical go together in evaluation. As I’ve stated before, to decide on what ideas to pursue have ruling principles not rules. This is the work of strategy, so first things first. Here, I didn’t touch on defining an analytical criteria, there are plenty of those approaches out there to satisfy a finance focused organization. I’ll just say that when judging a new idea analytically you should develop evaluation and decision criteria that fits your strategy.
  • Incremental can be big ideas too. To make it clear, when I say small thinking I’m talking about “me-too” ideas. And, when I say big thinking I’m not saying they have to be moon shots. They can be incremental but transformational. But these types of ideas are sometimes difficult to perceive, so it is best to try some and iterate. The important thing is to have conviction about the idea or ideas. If you don’t believe in them, don’t do it.

How do you get those big ideas?

There are many ways to shift your perspective, last week I showed you a simple technique to stretch and shift your perspective from “more of the same thinking” to “radical thinking”.  That should get your juices going!

Bottom line: Developing an evaluation criteria is probably one of the key challenges in the innovation process because it taps into both our intuitive and analytical tendencies. This causes a lot of noise as it is easier to just copy what works from someone else, or simply follow the tried and true formula. Truthfully, there is no right approach to developing a criteria, most of it is  just common sense and instinct. But again, I recommend you come up with your own criteria and not copy what others do. If you figure out those criteria, you will have overcome a major innovation obstacle.

Key points:

  • Big ideas break with tradition, change markets, show real leadership
  • Truly effective strategies and ideas must be disruptive, meaning that they are creative and difficult for competitors to copy
  • Ideas can be incremental but transformational and, oftentimes that is difficult to perceive, you won’t know until you try them
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