A new book by Peter Sims, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries, explores how structured experimentation can be used to test and improve fledgling ideas – building up solutions that are more targeted and successful, rather than rolling the dice on a single compelling but untested Big Idea.
Early in the book, Sims lays out 6 principles that are fundamental to the “small bets” experimental innovation concept:
Experiment: “Learn by doing. Fail quickly to learn fast. Develop experiments and prototypes to gather insights, identify problems and build up to creative ideas.” Obvious? Perhaps. Then why don’t more companies do it?
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.” Again, a seeming blinding flash of the obvious. But it’s very rare to see a company that has this kind of improvisational atmosphere. Most of the companies I’ve worked for, either directly or in a client relationship, could be said to be anti-improvisational. They’re so process driven that they can’t see the benefits of play and improv, which they tend to think is a waste of time. Yet it’s vital to making sure that new ideas survive long enough to enter the prototyping and experimentation stage.
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 to absorb how things work from the ground up.” Of course, this is vital. But it’s gotten harder to do during the last several years as companies slashed travel and meeting budgets just to survive. And now that the global economy is just starting to recover, my guess is that few organizations have re-established travel budgets for customer research, trade shows and industry meetings. What’s the solution? Look for inexpensive opportunities, such as customers, conventions and industry meetings that are within driving distance. Take a smaller group of people to each event to save money, but make sure someone from your business unit stays engaged with your industry and the larger world.
Define: “Use insights gathered throughout the process to define specific problems and needs before solving them, such as the Google founders did when they realized that their library search algorithm could address a much larger problem.”
Re-orient: “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.” There’s another benefit to conducting numerous small experiments: If you can show some early, small wins and paint a compelling picture of where you’re headed to your superiors, you’ll build a stronger base of support for when you need to take investment and risk in your new idea to the next level.
Iterate: “Repeat, refine and test frequently armed with better insights, information and assumptions as time goes on.” Sims uses the example of comedian Chris Rock, who relentlessly tests jokes and stories in small clubs near his home in New Jersey, gauging audience reaction, tweaking jokes and material until he has distilled hundreds of jokes into a tight, hilarious set that he uses in big venues like HBO specials. I had no idea comedy was such hard work – but it has made all the difference for Rock, one of the world’s best-known comedians.
How can you put this strategy to work in your job and your life?