Posts Tagged ‘Peter Sims’

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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Bolster traditional planning with small bets

So you’ve done your strategic plan and everyone’s on the same page. What about the unanticipated opportunities or challenges that always arise?

You need a more nimble means for responding to and acting on the changing environment around you, according to Peter Sims, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. Sims endorses an approach that requires making good use of small experiments by repeating, refining and perfecting for large wins.

Look at experimental innovation as helpful in building up a solution rather than starting with what you suspect is the answer and planning around it. Sims reminds us that creative teams that use the little bets approach aren’t trying a lot of ideas to see what sticks; rather, they are rigorous, analytical, strategic and pragmatic about their innovation. The principles Sims introduces in Little Bets are not meant to facilitate a step-by-step process. Instead, they are meant to guide productive creativity.

The Little Bets approach has some fundamentals. Sims says we should:

Experiment: Learn by doing. Fail quickly and learn fast. Develop experiments and prototypes to gather insights, identify problems and build up to creative ideas.
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 and gather fresh ideas and insights in order to understand deeper human motivations and desires. Absorb how things work from the ground up.
Define: Use insights gathered throughout the process to define specific problems and needs before solving them.
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 the better insights, information and assumptions as time goes on.

For most of us, adopting this experimental approach requires a significant change in mindset. Many factors throughout our lives have accumulated to form tendencies away from little bets or entrepreneurial experimentation. For example, our education system is centered on teaching us facts and rewarding us for memorization. There is much less emphasis on teaching us to creatively think and discover for ourselves.

Those of us who are willing to embrace uncertainty and failure will reap remarkable results. Little Bets’ case study heroes rejoice in errors and surprises. The mere fact that Sims’ book is based on the notion of small discoveries leading to breakthrough ideas feels as if it was written for the nonprofit organization. Nonprofits, in truth, are built for small bets and big victories. Our budgets demand it. So if you can stomach the experimental failures and keep the board at bay while you do so, get ready for breakthrough ideas.

For more information about Peter Sims’ book, visit or Or you can learn more by dowloading the Little Bets Page to Practice feature at CausePlanet.

See also:

Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner

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