Little Bets

Little Bets by Peter Sims How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries by Peter Sims
ISBN: 9781439170427

In this book Sims tries to get people comfortable with uncertainty, particularly the uncertainty around business decisions involving new product development. He quotes a major player in the space (Jeff Bezos, founder) early on to help establish credibility for his arguments: “You can’t put into a spreadsheet how people are going to behave around a new product”.

Experimental innovators — like Bezos — “do things to discover what they should do” instead of developing painstakingly detailed master plans. It isn’t that detailed master plans never work. When “much is known, procedural planning approaches work perfectly well” Sims tells us, it’s when they are unknown that they don’t work. (One problem I see is that companies like to think they know more than they do — so people rely on master plans that are but illusions of certainty.)

So what are little bets? They are “concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable”. If this sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve been reading Eric Ries’s Lean Startup stuff. Little bets are experiments that can fuel progress through the learn, build, measure loop: placing little bets is the minimum viable mindset in action.

It’s that simple, but placing little bets isn’t necessarily easy. We’ve got human nature to contend with, and we aren’t always as mentally flexible as it would be good for us to be:

By expecting to get things right at the start, we block ourselves psychologically and choke off a host opportunities to learn. In placing so much emphasis on minimizing errors or the risk of any kind of failure, we shut off chances to identify the insights that drive creative progress. Becoming more comfortable with failure, and coming to view false starts and mistakes as opportunities opens us up creatively.

Levels of resilience vary widely, but the good news is we have the ability to change our mindset and develop greater tolerance for failure. It might not sound possible to change a fixed mindset to a become more of a growth mindset, but it is. (Sims cites Carol Dweck’s work on mindset for this.)

Experiments flex growth mindset muscles. They encourage us to focus on what we can learn, rather than what we might lose. Pixar’s creative process (“going from suck to nonsuck”) is a growth mindset in action, as they iterate from sketchy storyboards to brilliance. The important point being, they don’t start at brilliance, it takes a lot of work to get there.

Pixar wouldn’t even be here if Steve Jobs didn’t have a growth mindset. Instead of focussing on what he expected to gain from Pixar’s animation division, he continually made investments in the company that were about what he could afford to lose. (If this sounds like a no-brainer, remember the Pixar you know isn’t primarily the hardware company Jobs originally bought.) It wasn’t one giant bet that created the Pixar we know today, but several small wins that resulted from little bets.

Invention and discovery emanate from being able to try seemingly wild possibilities and work in the unknown; to be comfortable being wrong before being right; to live in the world as a keen observer, with an openness to experiences and ideas; to play with ideas without censoring oneself or others; to persist through dark valleys with a growth mind-set; to improvise ideas in collaboration and conversation with others; and, to have a willingness to be misunderstood, sometimes for long periods of time, despite conventional wisdom.

Perhaps best part, if you aren’t there in your thinking right now, is that you don’t have to change everything at once. Start small, pick one thing — one experiment that might create some fear or uncertainty, and do it anyway, just to see. Something small enough you can focus on the afford to lose part… there’s so much to gain if you do.

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