Small business ideas to access bigger ideas

Feb 25 2005 by Edward de Bono Print This Article

A small idea is how small, exactly? You can think of creative improvements in the fundamental process of democracy itself. You can think of much needed improvements in our concepts of economics.

There are lots of people whose business it is to think of new products and new services. There are those who apply creative thinking to cost cutting or to quality improvement. New thinking is a necessity of strategy.

But how about really small ideas? When you are buttering a piece of crispbread, the bread often breaks as it is crisp and thin. So a second piece could be used to support the first piece. A simple but effective idea, and a very small one.


If people get themselves into the habit of small ideas, then they will be more willing and more able to apply their minds creatively to large ones. You are not likely to be very creative if the only time you are asked to think creatively is the annual 'creative session'.

For people to be asked specifically to be creative about something is quite rare. In Melbourne, there was a specifically convened meeting to discuss the future of that city. The meeting was arranged via the de Bono Institute in Melbourne - 2,800 ideas and comments were generated in three hours. Such specific meetings are a rarity.

The majority of people do not set out to think creatively unless they have to or unless they are specifically asked to do so. At a recent high tech conference in California, there was the common determinedly 'casual' dress code and ties were out. So I invented a way of wearing five 'ties' at the same time. This turned out to be a very good idea which I shall use elsewhere. I thought creatively as there seemed to be a 'need' to do so.

Small ideas may have a direct value in themselves, but they will always have a value in building up the habit of creative thinking, so that in any situation the habitual creative thinker will be able to generate alternative approaches. Small ideas provide a kind of gymnasium for creativity. Small ideas can be used to practise creativity almost all the time. That is how a permanent creative attitude is developed.

Area focus

Far too many people still believe that the main purpose of thinking is 'problem-solving'. This can mean there is a problem that needs fixing because something is not doing what it should. The term is often broadened to encompass tasks that need to be achieved or improvements in a desired direction.

But many of the best results of creativity come from thinking about things which no one has bothered to think about before. Because of this, I always emphasise 'Area Focus' at my seminars.

This means just focusing on some area - which may be very broad or very specific. The main characteristic about this type of focus is that there is no 'purpose' outside of wanting to have some ideas in that area or around that subject. You might focus on 'writing' in general. You might focus on 'pencils' in general. You might focus on the region of a pencil that is two centimetres from the writing tip.

Note that in all these focuses there is no desire as there might be in purpose focuses - to make the writing more difficult to erase, say; or add value to the pencil; or find a more effective way of sharpening the pencil, etc.

Ample opportunity for seeking to apply creativity to any area is provided by small ideas. There is no risk and nothing to lose but a short amount of thinking time.

How can you carry a pen in your pocket?

How can you carry paper grocery bags?

How can you take out the garbage?

How can you use an alarm clock?

Does a better way of cleaning cooking pans exist?

How might the washing-up load be reduced?

Are teaspoons needed?

How can you end a difficult telephone call?

How could the cat look after itself when you are going away for a few days?

How can you sort out your correspondence?

Could there be a use for used envelopes?


Confidence and creativity have a key relationship. If you have no confidence in your creativity then you will not even get started. I expect that most people responding to my website ( have very little confidence in their ability to be creative. At the other extreme are those who are falsely confident in their ability and are too easily satisfied with a crazitivity kind of idea.

It is impossible to be confident that you will turn up a really good idea. But you could possibly be confident that you can operate the creative process effectively. It is also possible to be confident that some new ideas will be found. When pursued, these new ideas might not turn out to be at all valuable: nevertheless, they are new directions.

This confidence can be developed by the habit of looking for small ideas. There is no major difference in the mental processes involved in small ideas from those involved in major ideas. Therefore, as you build up confidence in your ability to direct creative effort at small ideas, so you increase the confidence needed for big ideas.

Lots of people believe they could never have a 'great' creative idea. So they do not try. But it is much more within a person's ability range to have a 'small' creative idea. So there is more reason to attempt it.

Effort and skill

Teaching creative skill is possible. Those who doubt it or want to know how to do it should contact APTT (USA 1 800 621 3366) who handle training in my methods. It is not possible to demand creative ideas as there is always an element of chance. It is possible to demand effort in creativity. If the creative effort exists, then creative ideas will start to emerge.

So if you ask for creative effort it will eventually lead to creative results. A direct way of asking for creative effort is asking for small ideas.


We now move on to perhaps the most important aspect of 'small ideas creativity'. The majority of ideas are never put into action. This is due to the fact that the idea depends on some other party for action. The idea needs investment or a change in some established procedure. Testing the idea first may be necessary. The person having the idea might have no control over the decision to use the idea or not. This can be quite frustrating for creative people.

It is useful to define a small idea as one that can be acted upon by the originator of the idea, although it is not absolutely necessary. The person coming up with the idea is in a position to try out the idea and to use it. If this definition of a small idea is adhered to, then the motivation increases. Now nothing exists between the idea and its implementation. It is true that such a definition might severely restrict the nature of small ideas, but what is lost in value may be gained in motivation.

Added to the requirement for 'action' might be that it is action 'now'. The idea can be tried out now. This means that the designer of the idea has complete responsibility for the action stage. It is no longer a matter of having the idea and then giving it to someone else for consideration and action.


An arranged of words can be used to describe things. However, things can only draw and hold attention if they have an identity of their own in perception. Perception is different from description.

Because of that we should try to give some identity to the class of small ideas. We can create the new name 'sina' to stand for 'Small Idea Now Action'. I doubt whether this name will be much used because names such as this rarely catch on unless there is a real need for them. This is a shame because there is value in identifying the area of small usable ideas.

Idea fairs

Encouraging small ideas in an organisation is possible by setting up competitions and small idea 'fairs'. The point is that small ideas are everybodyís concern. An idea cannot be too small. In fact, there is almost some merit in having very small ideas that are very easy to implement.

A small idea should not only be an alternative way of arranging something or decorating something. Some demonstrated value has to be there. The simpler the idea, the more value is needed to give merit to the idea.

Small, simple ideas with obvious value are awarded the highest marks. Ideas which involve a technical fix do have value, but less than simple ideas which do not require special technology. Simplicity and effectiveness is always the value.

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About The Author

Edward de Bono
Edward de Bono

Edward de Bono (1933-2021) was a leading authority in the field of creative thinking. Over 35 years after the publication of his first book, "The Mechanism of Mind", the basic principles he outlined are now mainstream thinking in the mathematics of self-organising systems and in the design of neuro-computers. His many subsequent books have been translated into 26 languages.