4 Reasons Small Businesses Win at Creative Problem Solving

We humans just cannot stop consuming.  We love to use things up and throw them out so much that we now throw things out even when they are not ‘used up’. 

The Case of the Broken Glasses

The other day, I found that the arm of my glasses was loose.  A screw was missing.   I took it to a large eyewear retailer to get it repaired but found that they couldn’t fix it as they didn’t have a screw that matched the original.  This wasn’t a problem, they assured me.  It was going to be fairly cheap to just get a brand new pair of glasses.  And it was.  I could have thrown out the old pair and bought a brand new pair for a very reasonable price.  The problem was that I didn’t want a new pair.  I love the glasses I have now and I wanted to keep them.

So I went to a tiny repair shop, run by an old man.  He told me to leave my glasses with him and come back in 20 minutes.  When I got back to the small shop, the man had fixed my glasses. He explained that he couldn’t find a screw that matched the original, so he had to grind down another screw to ensure it fit properly. 

They were as good as new and the man only wanted $1.00.  I couldn’t believe the time, effort and customer service this one man offered me and I wanted to pay him more but he insisted - $1.00 was the fee. 

What does this say about small business compared to big?

This experience made me think of how valuable small businesses are in creativity and innovation.  Small businesses have the freedom to search for the creative solution, whereas large companies often do not have the time to let their people be creative. 

In many ways, the death of small business will be a great loss to innovation.  Big businesses may be buying out the small in order to assimilate its innovation, but this doesn’t seem to be working – at least not for the long term.  The creative problem solving hallmark of small business seems to disappear in an environment that does not foster a culture of risk.

The barriers that prevent creative problem solving in big business are as follows:

 1.       Size Matters

It can’t be helped! The bigger a business becomes, the more its size and complexity can disadvantage innovation.  This is because large organisations require the management of a large number of people and departments all functioning productively and cohesively.  Small businesses are simply more nimble, agile and can make quick decisions.

 2.       Keeping Customers Close

It’s easy for small businesses to make and maintain close relationships to their customers – it often comes quite effortlessly!  Therefore knowing what the customer wants and responding to it is also easier. Big businesses have to work harder and manoeuvre through layers of bureaucracy. 

 3.       Policy Schmolicy

Both small and large businesses have policies and procedures, but small businesses can change their policies and procedures quickly if they are not working. 

 4.       Culture Club

Big businesses tend to have an already established corporate culture that new hires have to fit into, whereas the culture of a small business will change, develop and evolve with the addition of new hires.  This fosters an environment of change, motion and individuality; the perfect setting for creative thinking.  An open culture is also one that allows risk and accepts the potential of failure. 

It is possible for big businesses to have the positive facets of small business that are conducive to innovation and creative thinking.  However it is harder to maintain this when faced with the obstacles that increased red tape creates.

Obviously there are also disadvantages that come with small businesses:

  • They are more affected by market instability
  • Larger organisations competing in the same space can offer more competitive prices
  • Encouraging risk taking creates more chance of failure (but then again, you never know if something is great unless you try…)
  • Less policy and procedures can create internal problems, particularly if there is no formal HR function.

There are pros and cons to small business but it can often be the best environment for innovation and creative problem solving, serving a valuable purpose in our society. There is also something to be said about the quality and uniqueness that small businesses offer – not just in service, but in products too. There’s always a special beauty in something hand-crafted, something that can get lost in mass production.  

So the next time you’re shopping for something, consider the small business. In a highly competitive market with a heavy emphasis on price, small businesses are struggling to stay alive.  What a shame it will be to see these innovators and problem solvers disappear.