By Eric Barker
October 24, 2014
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

In order to innovate in a way that is both practical and effective you need to make “little bets.”

What’s a little bet?

Rather than going all-in on the first idea you have and risk losing everything, a little bet allows you to break out of your comfort zone and try something new knowing that if it doesn’t work out you can quickly recover and try something else.

Little Bets

The best book on the subject is the aptly titled Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. Peter Sims explains why it’s such a strong concept:

It’s an excellent book but what really struck me was when I saw this same underlying principle popping up again and again in different arenas.

In Business

In Eric Ries’ acclaimed bestseller The Lean Startup he makes it clear that little bets, or “experiments”, are critical to moving a business forward in a safe fashion:

…if you cannot fail, you cannot learn.

He tells the story of how Nick Swinmurn, founder of Zappos, tested his theory that selling shoes on the web would work.

Swinmurn could have started the company, raised venture capital, aligned partners and then found out if it was a terrible idea. Instead he went to local shoe stores and took pictures:

And, obviously, it worked.

The Arts

So little bets make sense for formal things like businesses but can they help someone in a more creative arena?

The more creative an artist is the more likely they are to use this method:

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

Howard Gardner studied geniuses like Picasso, Freud and Stravinsky and found a similar pattern of analyzing, testing and feedback:

Via Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi:

Chris Rock makes “little bets” in order to improve his comedy:

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:

Everyday Life

What about for normal people with normal lives? It works for the rest of us too.

In Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You he recommends little bets for someone trying to develop their skills and create a career:

As Dan Pink explains in his excellent career guide The Adventures of Johnny Bunko:

Life is too complicated to be able to predict the future. All-in bets on your career are too risky. You need to make little bets and experiment.

Keep in mind that feedback is critical. If you want to test a theory or master a subject you need solid feedback and you need it fast. This is what the best mentors provide. So have some system in place that will tell you whether or not the little bet is meeting your goal.

Picking a “Little Bet”

Okay, so which bets do you make? How do you use them to get where you want to go?

Peter Sims lays out a straightforward process for coming up with little bets and how to best execute them to learn and get results.

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:

  • 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 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.

What’s a little bet you can try today?

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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