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Why The Big Idea Doesn't Need to Be Big

It's easy to get obsessed with finding The Big Idea. Here's why we need more tweakers and fixer-uppers instead.
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Entrepreneurs tend to focus on big, new ideas – they want to build tomorrow's Facebook. But the biggest ideas aren't always the ones that have the most immediate impact on people's lives. For that, entrepreneurs need to focus less on invention and more on innovation and integration.

Invention is the rarest form of creative problem-solving, achieved only with a deep understanding of people and resources. It is exemplified by great minds like the Wright brothers and R. Buckminster Fuller. “Invention demands holding controls, modifying variables, testing, testing, and retesting until you have proved that you've created something that's truly unique and beneficial,” said Josh McManus, chief inventor at the Detroit-based Little Things Labs. He has been a founder, fundraiser, and strategist in the social sector for more than a decade.

The special Eureka moments are few and far between, but innovation, in many cases, is much easier to come by. Innovation doesn't demand that entrepreneurs reinvent the wheel, but rather that they bring fresh perspectives to classic problems.

With that in mind, it's not as counterintuitive as it might first seem that a Harvard Business School study has revealed that the "further the problem from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they are to solve it.” In fact, an innovator’s chances of success increase by 10 percent if the problem being addressed falls completely outside their expertise.

E Health Point, one of three winners in Ashoka Changemakers' Innovations for Health competition, is delivering affordable health care to rural communities in India through video conferencing technology. Telemedicine enables rural villagers, who typically lack the means to visit clinics in large cities, to interact with licensed doctors over the Internet. Telemedicine can also get them access to hundreds of over-the-counter medicines and fresh water. This is innovation at its best: taking existing technologies and using them to solve problems in desperate need of a solution.

Integration requires a more global perspective: Chances are that somebody, somewhere has already developed a sustainable, scalable solution to a similar problem. Integration captures the application of expertise to human systems design across a wide range of fields.

A wild example of how solutions can cross sector boundaries is the work of APOPO, an organization founded by Ashoka Fellow Bart Weetjens. He trains African giant pouched rats, sociable creatures blessed with an exceptional sense of smell, to detect landmines in countries with long wartime landmine legacies. 

APOPO’s “HeroRATs” have also been deployed as second-line screeners of tuberculosis (TB) in partner hospitals. It would take a lab technician a full day to evaluate infected human sputum samples, but the HeroRATs are able to complete the same task in just seven minutes.

We can be more than founders and CEOs. Let's be tweakers, tinkerers, and fixer-uppers. As Leonardo da Vinci once said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Last updated: Aug 15, 2012

BENJAMIN WALD | Columnist

Benjamin Wald is a successful technology entrepreneur and investor. Ben?s passion for social impact, software and education support his ambition to change the world through technology. He is now the Managing Partner of Spartan Systems.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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