Little Bets: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: April 20th, 2011 by bobmorris

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries
Peter Sims
Free Press/Simon & Schuster (23011)

How to generate “ingenious ideas…through a rigorous experimental discovery process”

Having read and reviewed True North, a book Peter Sims co-authored with Bill George, I was curious to know what he has to say about “how breakthrough ideas emerge from small discoveries.” I was pleased but hardly surprised that Sims has a great deal of value to share, much of it (as he duly acknowledges) gained from conversations with or rigorous study of various thought leaders and they include a few surprises. Chris Rock, for example. His routines are the result of an exhausting process of continuous (mostly failed) experiments, constant modification, and subtle refinement. Other experimental innovators and thought leaders include Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin (co-founders of Google), Saras Sarasvathy, Pixar’s Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, Chet Pipkin, Frank Gehry, Bing Gordon, U.S. Army Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Steve Jobs, Jeffrey Dyer and Hal Gregersen, Richard Wiseman, and Eric von Hippel.

As Sims explains, his book’s proposition is based on an experimental approach that involves a lot of little bets and certain creative methods to identify possibilities and build up to great outcomes eventually, after frequent failures. (Actually, experimental innovation has no failures; rather, there are initiatives that have not as yet succeeded, each of which is a precious learning opportunity.) “At the core of this experimental approach, little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new, or attend to open-ended problems.”

Constant experimentation (“learn by doing”) is fundamental to this approach, as indicated, as are a playful, improvisational, and humorous environment; immersion in unfamiliar situations, localities, circumstances, etc.; definition of specific questions to answer, specific problems to solve, specific objectives to achieve, etc.; flexibility amidst ambiguity and uncertainty in combination with a willingness to accept reorientation; and, as indicated, constant iteration (reiteration?) to test, evaluate, refine, test again, etc. Those who are curious wish to understand what works. Experimental innovators have an insatiable curiosity to know what works (or doesn’t), why it works (or doesn’t), and how it can be improved.

It is important to understand that, as Sims explains, “we can’t plot a series of small wins in advance, we must use experiments in order for them to emerge.” That is, conduct lots (I mean LOTS) of small experiments (betting small amounts of hours and dollars) and then,  as small (modest) “wins” occur, increase the “bet” and see what happens…or doesn’t. This process is iterative and never ends. The fundamental advantages are obvious. It allows people to discover new whatevers through an emergent, organic process of frugal but sufficient investments, and, it allows for all manner of adjustments (course corrections, additions/deletions, increases/reductions, etc.) at any point throughout the process.

If your organization is in need of breakthrough ideas, why don’t you provide them? Peter Sims provides in this book just about everything you need to know to understand the process and what must be done to initiate and then sustain it. However, the discoveries cannot be made until the experiments occur. If not you, who? If not now, when?


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