Going from Suck to Non-Suck

I mentioned last week I wanted to get you more insights into books I think are worth attention. Today, I want to share with you Peter Sims new book, Little Bets. Peter is a Silicon Valley type, from Stanford…and he’s written a great book that anyone could use and get something from.


If there was one thing (from your book) you’d want to have every person do to exponentially fuel innovation inside their firms, what would that be (and why)?

Seasoned entrepreneurs and successful creators, whether it’s Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or architect Frank Gehry, are extremely good at discovering, and developing new ideas and opportunities.  They tend to work and act in a particular way, a mindset that starts with little bets, tangible actions that can uncover unpredictable, and innovative ideas, whether it’s Amazon Web Services or Disney Hall in Los Angeles.  If everyone mastered the ability to discover with little bets, it would exponentially fuel innovation.

Collaboration — that art of co-creating or co-laboring to creating something bigger — wasn’t directly mentioned in your work, but many of the things you talked of would lead to good collaboration. What would you want us to take-away?

No invents or creates alone.  Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Frank Gehry, and Michelangelo all work (or worked) with teams, while great entrepreneurs, like Wendy Kopp or Chuck Schwab, expand their means by convincing people with complimentary skills, expertise or networks to join them.   Chris Rock co-creates new acts with small audiences in local comedy clubs; it’s improvised.  So, the main takeaway I want people to have is that they don’t have to have ingenious ideas on their own.  Utilize the insight and expertise of people all around you.  That could be a taxi cab driver who might have an insight on a new need people have, like Uber cab has discovered with its iPhone app.  Or, as research from MIT’s Eric von Hippel shows, early adopters, or what he calls “lead users,” like Chris Rock’s die hard comedy audiences, can provide unusually good insight into ideas and problems.  But you have to be working from something tangible, like a prototype that someone can hold and feel, what I call a little bet, to drive that process.

You mentioned that Big companies often can’t do “little bets”; they feel the need to bet on $1B opportunities rather than see how $5 and $10M opportunities grow to be billion dollar opportunities. Ideas on how companies can overcome that bias.

Well, this is obviously a really big problem.  As research from Clayton Christensen to Jim Collins shows, when managers feel forced to make big bets, it indicates that a company risks stagnation, decline, and failure.  So, my argument is that what’s needed is a change in mindset when it comes to discovery or innovation.  You can’t just use the same MBA analytical skills that are so good at executing on a core business to discover in new territory, where little is known or predictable.  You need to be able to think and act more like an entrepreneur, such as in terms of affordable losses rather than expected gains, and small bets are a vehicle to drive that in a way that limits risk.  As executives at Proctor & Gamble told me they see little bets as the way to be a learning organization, while General Motors execs call them the “antidote to risk aversion.”  That’s my hope!

What tool or idea do you have to share that helps you be kick-ass (see definition: http://blog.nilofermerchant.com/kick-ass-ness)?

I love this!  By far, the most important thing is to hang out with kick-ass people and have kick-ass friends.  That, and making little bets on things that fire me up!

Learning is so central — it’s a form of “little bets” in innovation and in life — what are you learning about right now?

Great question!  Well, each time I give a presentation about Little Bets, it’s actually a little bet.  I think of developing and honing my speaking much like the way the book came together, as Pixar cofounder and president Ed Catmull describes the Pixar creative process: “Going from suck to non-suck.”  So I’m learning a great deal about all the different ways people are using the book and research.  For instance, a senior advertising executive said he’s recommending the book to all his colleagues because that industry can get paralyzed by the perception that big ideas should happen instantaneously when they actually don’t.  So, that was pretty cool, and since it seems like a big problem for that industry, it’s already leading to a few little bets.  Life, after all, is a creative process.

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