Why Thinking Big Means Getting Small

Your organization doesn’t have to be small to be innovative. But at least part of it does.

In an interview with McKinsey QuarterlyTodd Park, recent chief technology officer of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and now the CTO of the United States, asserts that even the federal government—rarely seen as a wellspring of change and creativity—can be made into an innovative entity. A key requirement, though, is this: Small teams must be given sufficient space to come up with fresh ideas.

“Government is obviously not a start-up, but initiatives to effect change are best thought of as start-ups: You want a small interdisciplinary team,” Park told McKinsey. “Contrast this with the traditional mode of making change happen in a large organization, which is the ‘waterfall’ process: spend six months coming up with some brilliant strategy, another six months doing a great operational plan, then six more months building a great systems plan.”

We can’t say whether Park reads this blog (though if he leaves a comment for us he has a Peter Drucker T-shirt coming his way), but his command of Drucker’s principles sure seems solid. For Drucker taught that all enterprises—even the largest—can and must be innovative, but that in a big organization innovation should be the brainchild of relatively small, stand-alone units separate from the mothership.

The search for innovation needs to be organized separately and outside of the ongoing managerial business,” Drucker explained in his 1973 book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “Innovative organizations realize that one cannot simultaneously create the new and take care of what one already has.”

In his 1985 book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Drucker underscored the point: “The entrepreneurial, the new, has to be organized separately from the old and existing,” he asserted. “No matter what has been tried—and we have now been trying every conceivable mechanism for 30 or 40 years—existing units have been found to be capable mainly of extending, modifying and adapting what already is in existence. The new belongs elsewhere.”

How does your organization ensure that its most entrepreneurial efforts get the space they truly need?