Summary : Little Bets by Peter Sims

1. When success is the only acceptable outcome, Little Bets advocates a bold and radical approach in which failure is good,

2. I had worked before then as a venture capital investor, and in that work, I had learned that most successful entrepreneurs don’t begin with brilliant ideas—they discover them.

3. These creators use experimental, iterative, trial-and-error approaches to gradually build up to breakthroughs. Experimental innovators must be persistent and willing to accept failure and setbacks as they work toward their goals.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Fundamental to the little bets approach is that we: 

  • 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 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.

8. Two fundamental advantages of the little bets approach are highlighted in the research of Professor Saras Sarasvathy: that it enables us to focus on what we can afford to lose rather than make assumptions about how much we can expect to gain, and that it facilitates the development of means as we progress with an idea.

9. Seasoned entrepreneurs, she emphasizes, will tend to determine in advance what they are willing to lose, rather than calculating expected gains.

10. Of course the subject of affordable losses highlights a key issue with the little bets approach—it inevitably involves failure.

11. In almost any attempt to create, failure, and often a good deal of it, is to be expected.

12. Hewlett’s approach to identifying new opportunities using small bets did not come without numerous failures. In 1971, HP featured over 1,600 products in its catalog, none of which averaged sales of more than ten units per day, according to Chuck House. In fact, Hewlett estimated that roughly only six out of every 100 new HP products would become breakout successes.

13. By advocating the little bets approach, I am in no way arguing against bold ambition. Ambitious (dare I employ the overused word audacious) goals are essential.

14. A big vision provides the direction and inspiration through which to channel aspirations and ideas. But one of the most important lessons of the study of experimental innovators is that they are not rigid in pursuit of that vision, and that they persevere through failures, often many of them.

15. Central to Pixar’s success in fostering this growth mind-set through the ranks is the company’s attitude about failure. Pixar’s managers see a host of failures, false starts, and problems as the modus operandi for developing their films. In fact, when Ed Catmull sums up Pixar’s creative process, he describes it as going from suck to nonsuck.

16. Pixar film ideas begin on rough storyboards that suck until they work through thousands of problems throughout the process in order to take films from suck to nonsuck.

17. Of course, just failing is not the key; the key is to be systematically learning from failures.

18. One of the methods that can be most helpful in achieving this balance, in order to embrace the learning potential of failure, is prototyping. What the creation of low cost, rough prototypes makes possible is failing quickly in order to learn fast.

19. Failing quickly to learn fast is also a central operating principle for seasoned entrepreneurs who routinely describe their approach as failing forward. That is, entrepreneurs push ideas into the market as quickly as possible in order to learn from mistakes and failures that will point the way forward.

20. Novelist Anne Lamott believes that every good writer writes what she calls shitty first drafts.

21. The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts,” Lamott writes in Bird by Bird. Just get it down on paper, she recommends. Write like a child, whatever comes to your mind. “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”

22. Ed Catmull’s belief that it’s better to fix problems than prevent errors.

23. The level of feedback you get is so much more valuable and impactful…. The problem with showing something to consumers when it’s almost totally done, people don’t necessarily want to give negative feedback at that point because it looks like, “This company has spent a lot of money already getting it to this stage and now I’m going to tell them, ‘It sucks.’” On the other hand, if something hangs together with tape, and it’s clear that it’s an early prototype, the mindset of consumers often is, “These people still need some help, so let me tell you what I really think about it.”

24. Analogous to Limb’s findings, Ansari and Berkowitz found that during improvisation, the right-temporoparietal junctions of the pianists’ brains were deactivated. Neuroscientists associate this area of the brain with the ability to make judgments, particularly about differences differences between self and others. The experienced pianists seemed to be able to turn off a judging part of their mind, freeing them up to create novel melodies. According to Berkowitz, brain scans of nonartists do not exhibit a similar pattern, which suggests that experiencing creative processes could help to build certain creative muscles.

25. There are several major improvisation principles. One is that you should “accept every offer.”

26. So, for example, if two people were performing an improvised skit, Bob might say to Sherry, “I was thinking we could watch Silence of the Lambs tonight.” To which Sherry would accept that offer by saying something like, “Yes, and we can still have time to watch the Late Show afterward.” To which Bob might reply, “Yes, and then we can check email!” It’s a simplified and somewhat silly example, but the point of accepting every offer is that nothing is too silly.

27. After all, if Sherry had spurned Bob’s initial offer by replying, “That’s a stupid movie,” Bob would start thinking and censoring himself, shutting down the possibilities that might come. The effect is deadening.

28. That Bob and Sherry lift one another up relates to another foundation of improvisation: Make your partner look good. Because Bob and Sherry aren’t criticizing one another, it creates a positive atmosphere to generate possibilities. Positive energy drives improvisation, and reduces inhibitions and doubts. By making each other look good, it’s easier for Bob and Sherry to get in a zone.

29. Throughout the Pixar creative process, they rely heavily on what they call plussing; it is likely the most-used concept around the company. The point of plussing is to build upon and improve ideas without using judgmental language. Creating an atmosphere where ideas are constantly being plussed, while maintaining a sense of humor and playfulness, is a central element of Pixar’s magic.

30. Rather than criticize an idea in its entirety (even if they don’t think it’s good), people accept the starting point before suggesting improvements.

31. Instead of criticizing the sketch or saying “no,” the director will build on the starting point by saying something like, “I like Woody’s eyes, and what if we …” Again, notice the use of the word and rather than a word that implies a judgment, such as but.

32. A host of studies indicates that humor creates positive group effects. Many focus on how humor can increase cohesiveness and act as a lubricant to facilitate more efficient communications.

33. One reason for that is that humor has also been demonstrated to increase trust. In order to produce positive mental effects, however, researchers Eric Romero and Anthony Pescosolido found that humor first must be considered funny to the people involved, not seen as demeaning, derogatory, or put-downs.

34. Romero and Pescosolido argued, based on a broad assessment of humor research, should affirm group identities in terms of: who we are, what we are doing, and how we do things.

35. Research evidence suggests a strong link between inquisitiveness and creative productivity.

36. Innovators routinely networked with people who came from different backgrounds.

37. Learning a little bit from a lot of people was one of the main ways Tim identified so many unique ideas and insights.

38. Wiseman’s research is that lucky people pay more attention attention to what’s going on around them than unlucky people.

39. For example, Wiseman found that the lucky people had three times greater open body language in social situations than unlucky people. Lucky people also smiled twice as much as unlucky people, thus drawing other people and chance encounters to them.

40. von Hippel found that one group, which he called active users or lead users, were responsible for developing over 75 percent of the innovations.

41. These people not only serve as cutting-edge taste makers, they actively tinker to push and create new ideas on their own.

42. Since the needs of these active users precede and, according to the research, often anticipate, what the masses will like, they become incredibly valuable as idea development partners.

43. The ideas they help generate can then be tested with broader audiences and commercialized. The same is true for good comedy.

44. For example, singer and songwriter John Legend does so as he develops a new song. The first part of Legend’s songwriting process is to develop a good back-beat working closely with music producers like Kanye West,, or Raphael Saadiq. Once he’s found a beat he likes, Legend will then develop melodies on top of it, often working at a piano, and finally write the lyrics. Kanye West, in particular, is a classic innovator and active user, constantly consuming and tinkering with music. Legend and others consider West to be a creative genius in many respects, with a well-tuned ear for what broader audiences will like. His early involvement in a song routinely drives later success. So, Legend will bounce ideas around with West at all stages of the process, especially at the beginning. It’s strategic trial and error.

45. A small win is “a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance.” They are small successes that emerge out of our ongoing development process, and it’s important to be watching closely for them.

46. Small wins are like footholds or building blocks amid the inevitable uncertainty of moving forward.

47. They serve as what Saras Sarasvathy calls landmarks, and they can either confirm that we’re heading in the right direction or they can act as pivot points, telling us how to change course.

48. It is helpful for alcoholics to focus on remaining sober one day at a time, or even one hour at a time. Stringing together successive days of sobriety helps them to see the rewards of abstinence and makes it more achievable.

49. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.”

50. Another benefit of small wins is less immediately obvious: They enable the development of the means to attain goals. Recall from Saras Saravathy’s research how important the development of means is to seasoned entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs use their available means, such as their expertise, networks, or financial resources, to develop their ideas and access additional resources and means. One way that Ed Catmull (and later Steve Jobs) developed Pixar’s means was by steadily bringing in new talent with complementary skills.

51. Additional resources also flow toward winners.

52. One last, yet important, point about small wins is that often, rather than validating a direction we’ve been pursuing, they will provide a signal to proceed in a different way.

53. It is much easier to decide to make a change of approach when we are doing so not because things aren’t working but because something has started to work.