How can we spur innovation at work — and in ourselves?
In order to innovate in a way that is both practical and effective you need to make “little bets.”
What’s a little bet?
A small experiment that tests a theory. It’s just big enough to give you the answer you need but not so big that it wastes too much precious time, money or resources.
Rather than going all-in on the first idea you have and risk losing everything, a little bet allows you to break out of your comfort zone and try something new knowing that if it doesn’t work out you can quickly recover and try something else.
The best book on the subject is the aptly titled Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. Peter Sims explains why it’s such a strong concept:
Little Bets is based on the proposition that we can use a lot of little bets and certain creative methods to identify possibilities and build up to great outcomes. 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. When we can’t know what’s going to happen, little bets help us learn about the factors that can’t be understood beforehand. The important thing to remember is that while prodigies are exceptionally rare, anyone can use little bets to unlock creative ideas.
It’s an excellent book but what really struck me was when I saw this same underlying principle popping up again and again in different arenas.
In Eric Ries’ acclaimed bestseller The Lean Startup he makes it clear that little bets, or “experiments”, are critical to moving a business forward in a safe fashion:
…if you cannot fail, you cannot learn.
He tells the story of how Nick Swinmurn, founder of Zappos, tested his theory that selling shoes on the web would work.
Swinmurn could have started the company, raised venture capital, aligned partners and then found out if it was a terrible idea. Instead he went to local shoe stores and took pictures:
His hypothesis was that customers were ready and willing to buy shoes online. To test it, he began by asking local shoe stores if he could take pictures of their inventory. In exchange for permission to take the pictures, he would post the pictures online and come back to buy the shoes at full price if a customer bought them online.
Zappos began with a tiny, simple product. it was designed to answer one question above all: is there really sufficient demand for a superior online shopping experience for shoes?
And, obviously, it worked.
So little bets make sense for formal things like businesses but can they help someone in a more creative arena?
The more creative an artist is the more likely they are to use this method:
In a study of thirty-five artists, Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi found that the most creative in their sample were more open to experimentation and to reformulating their ideas for projects than their less creative counterparts.
Howard Gardner studied geniuses like Picasso, Freud and Stravinsky and found a similar pattern of analyzing, testing and feedback:
…Creative individuals spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on what they are trying to accomplish, whether or not they are achieving success (and, if not, what they might do differently).
Chris Rock makes “little bets” in order to improve his comedy:
For a full routine, Rock tries hundreds (if not thousands) of preliminary ideas, out of which only a handful will make the final cut… By the time Rock reaches a big show— say an HBO special or an appearance on David Letterman— his jokes, opening, transitions, and closing have all been tested and retested rigorously. Developing an hour-long act takes even top comedians from six months to a year.
What about for normal people with normal lives? It works for the rest of us too.
In Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You he recommends little bets for someone trying to develop their skills and create a career:
The important thing about little bets is that they’re bite-sized. You try one. It takes a few months at most. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps. This approach stands in contrast to the idea of choosing a bold plan and making one big bet on its success.
As Dan Pink explains in his excellent career guide The Adventures of Johnny Bunko:
There is no plan.
Life is too complicated to be able to predict the future. All-in bets on your career are too risky. You need to make little bets and experiment.
Keep in mind that feedback is critical. If you want to test a theory or master a subject you need solid feedback and you need it fast. This is what the best mentors provide. So have some system in place that will tell you whether or not the little bet is meeting your goal.
Picking a “Little Bet”
Okay, so which bets do you make? How do you use them to get where you want to go?
Peter Sims lays out a straightforward process for coming up with little bets and how to best execute them to learn and get results.
- Experiment: Learn by doing. Fail quickly to learn fast. Develop experiments and prototypes to gather insights, identify problems, and build up to creative ideas, like Beethoven did in order to discover new musical styles and forms.
- Play: A playful, improvisational, and humorous atmosphere quiets our inhibitions when ideas are incubating or newly hatched, and prevents creative ideas from being snuffed out or prematurely judged.
- Immerse: Take time to get out into the world to gather fresh ideas and insights, in order to understand deeper human motivations and desires, and absorb how things work from the ground up.
- Define: Use insights gathered throughout the process to define specific problems and needs before solving them, just as the Google founders did when they realized that their library search algorithm could address a much larger problem.
- Reorient: Be flexible in pursuit of larger goals and aspirations, making good use of small wins to make necessary pivots and chart the course to completion.
- Iterate: Repeat, refine, and test frequently armed with better insights, information, and assumptions as time goes on, as Chris Rock does to perfect his act.
What’s a little bet you can try today?