Overcome your risk aversion through “little bets” and “plussing”

Successful innovators have revealed a consistent pattern from which we can all learn. Peter Sims’ Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries explores numerous examples—both corporate and nonprofit—that demonstrate how strategic small experiments were the key to huge wins. Through the process of trying and failing in incremental ways, creators gain the critical knowledge they need to develop extraordinary breakthroughs. These “little bets” helped launch companies like Google and Amazon.

According to Sims, Thomas Edison said “If I find ten thousand ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is just one more step forward.”

Learning a lot from a little: Successful social and business entrepreneurs don’t try to avoid errors; they seek them out as a means for closing in on the right answers. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize why the method of learning a lot from a little is better, especially within nonprofit constraints. Nonprofit leaders who read this book will find that Sims’ guidelines for being productively creative are surprisingly right-sized for the nonprofit and useful in an environment that often proves financially more unpredictable than a corporate setting.

The genius of play: What Edison’s quote doesn’t mention is there are a handful of guiding principles or conditions which facilitate this type of experimental innovation. One of which involves creating an atmosphere that allows for playfulness and improvisation. Improvisational techniques free us up from the risk aversion and emphasis on rigid procedures that dominate so many workplaces.

Learn how to “plus” an idea: For example, one way Pixar has overcome risk aversion in the creative process is through a technique called “plussing” says Sims. The idea behind plussing is to build on and improve upon ideas without using judgmental language. Creating a positive atmosphere where ideas are constantly being plussed, while maintaining an atmosphere of humor and play, is a key ingredient in Pixar’s recipe for success. Rather than using “but,” peers try to use “and.” For example, “I like Woody’s eyes, and what if his eyes rolled to the left?” or “Would it be clearer if [the character] did it this way?”

Happiness a precursor to success: Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work says, “Happiness is not just a mood—it’s a work ethic. Study after exhaustive study proves that happiness precedes important outcomes and indicators of thriving.” His book is based on the proven premise that happiness is actually the precursor to success. When you increase your happiness levels, you experience more successful outcomes and can work smarter and faster.

Make it safe for your employees to experiment with small bets: While nonprofits may not be in the business of animated films, they can undoubtedly benefit by using the “plussing” technique when solving problems or strategically planning. When financial or programmatic challenges sometimes appear to be bleak, solutions are more readily proposed if colleagues know their suggestions will be “plussed” rather than “minused.” Take a page out of Sims and Achor’s books; give your staff the freedom to experiment with small bets and provide them encouragement through plussing. Your staff will exude resilience during setbacks and confidently pursue the best solutions.

See also:

Happiness Advantage
Small Bets
Fired Up or Burned Out

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