Q&A with Peter

What is a “little bet”?

Little bets are a low-risk way to explore and develop new ideas.  Chris Rock develops new comedy routines by making little bets with small audiences; Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos makes small bets to identify opportunities in new markets like cloud computing.  Little bets are at the center of an approach to get to the right idea without getting stymied by perfectionism, risk-aversion, or excessive planning.

How is this approach different from and better than the typical way most people do something new?

We’re taught from an early age to use certain procedures and rules to analyze and solve problems, such as for math or chemistry.  There’s an emphasis on minimizing errors and avoiding failure.  These skills serve us extremely well when we have enough information to put into a formula or plan.  But what happens when we don’t even know what problems we’re trying to solve? In those kinds of situations, engaging in a process of discovery and making little bets complements more linear, procedural thinking.

What research did you do for this book and what did you set out to discover?

I wanted to find out what went on behind the scenes with some of the great achievements and innovations.  Most of them weren’t the epiphanies of geniuses, but instead the result a specific type of experimentation.  To find the common elements of their approach, I reviewed empirical and neuroscience research about creativity and innovation, interviewed or observed dozens of people about their approach from Army counterinsurgency strategists to agile software development teams, architect Frank Gehry and comedian Chris Rock. I also talked to entrepreneurs who had self-financed billion dollar businesses, experts in the rapidly growing field of design thinking, as well as musicians like John Legend.  Last, I interviewed executives inside a range of organizations such as Amazon, Pixar, Procter & Gamble, Google, 3M, General Motors, and Hewlett Packard.

What about big bets?  Why do you focus on little bets?

We all want to make big bets.  That’s a Silicon Valley mantra.  Be bold.  Go big.  But I think ingenious ideas are over-rated and that people routinely bet big on ideas that aren’t solving the right problems.  Just as Pixar storytellers must make thousands of little bets to develop a movie script, Hewlett Packard cofounder Bill Hewlett said HP needed to make 100 small bets on products to identify six that could be breakthroughs.  So, little bets are for learning about problems and opportunities while big bets are for capitalizing upon them once they’ve been identified.

What situations are well suited for little bets?

Little bets can be used in any situation when the path to the right answer isn’t known.  So, if you’re starting a new project, instead of trying to come up with a perfect initial plan, you can scribble some ideas down on paper and bounce those little bets off colleagues to make sure you’re going down the right path.  Or, if you’re leading a new team, you can make little bets with small assignments to better understand your people’s strengths and weaknesses.  Or, if you want to improve your prospects for getting a new job, you can make little bets on people and events to build out your network and identify interesting opportunities.   Each little bet takes you closer to the answer.

What surprised you most in what you found?

How successful people in vastly different fields had arrived at very similar approaches.  Story developers at Pixar, Army General H.R. McMaster, and Frank Gehry use the same basic methods and make lots of little bets.  They even use similar language and vocabulary – like “using constraints” or “reframing problems”– but they all learned their approaches through their experiences, not in school.  As General McMaster said the parallels were almost “eerie.”

Why is it more important than ever to master a “little bets” approach?

We live in uncertain and rapidly changing times that can make us risk-averse, prone to getting stuck.  Little bets provide an antidote.  For example, Twitter originated out of little bets made inside Odeo, a podcasting company that was going nowhere.  After asking employees for suggestions about what the company should do, Odeo founder Evan Williams gave Jack Dorsey two weeks to develop a prototype for his short messaging idea.  Twitter was soon born.  Another key reason why the time is right to embrace a little bets strategy is unlike previous generations, people now change jobs every few years and, according to researchers, will even switch careers up to six or seven times over a lifetime.  That’s a very new way of relating to our work and careers.  Little bets must become a way to see what’s around the next corner, or we risk stagnating.

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