Philippe's Reviews > Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

Little Bets by Peter Sims
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Jan 31, 12

bookshelves: systems-thinking
Read in January, 2012

Little bets is an accessible and well-written book that straddles the fuzzy boundaries between creativity research, corporate innovation, and design thinking. Although Sims' writerly approach doesn't perceptly differ from many others in this crowded segment (à la Gladwell) there is something affectionately intelligent in his tone of voice that made me want to read on. Also in terms of subject matter, the book delivers few, if any, really novel insights. But still, I found Sims' plea for a culture of rigorous, experimental discovery to be persuasive and well argued.

The basic point is that in a context of limited resources and rapid change it is wise to adopt an entrepreneurial ethos of constant and affordable experimentation. This is in contrast with an approach, typical for bureaucratized corporate and military settings, that relies on big and cumbersome bets on options with an assumedly 'safe' risk-profile. Entrepreneurs constantly play on the tensions between a closely held vision and a fluid, improvisatory take on emerging opportunities. Theirs is an approach that doesn't shirk failure, but sees a setback as an opportunity to learn and grow. The guiding spirit is one of playfulness and modesty. Challenge is not to become intimidated by complexity but to break down ('smallify') problems to manageable dimensions. And rather than being fixated by threshold expected gains ('the market needs to be so or so big before we think it is worthwhile to venture into it') seasoned 'little betters' will calibrate their efforts by what they are willing to lose (the 'affordable loss principle'). These are people that seek out diversity, actively build on others' ideas, and acknowledge the often weak voices from those at the fringe.

Simms illustrates his points with a multitude of case studies and role models, including Muhammed Yunus who was led to establish his enormously influential Grameen Bank by spending time on the ground with some of India's rural poorest. Other luminaries include the inevitable Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, journalist Tim Russert, Pixar's lead technologist Ed Catmull, architect Frank Gehry and others (obviously a rather US-centric assortment).

Simms points to relevant connections with other decision-making and design strategies such as Lean Manufacturing and Agile Software Development without going into details, however. The narrative is interspersed with references to various sources of scholarly research in the disciplines of individual and group psychology, pedagogy, corporate innovation, and strategic marketing (there is an extensive appendix that points to additional resources). Simms might have cast the net even wider as the general principle of 'goal-oriented incrementalism' has also been embraced in contemporary approaches to systems innovation, transition management and cybernetics.

All in all Little Bets is an interesting and engaging read. A stimulating introduction for newbies and interesting refresher for those already familiar with similar ideas.
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