Need a Breakthrough Idea? Start Small

Last Updated May 17, 2011 11:50 AM EDT

How many times in your career has your team decided they needed a bold new strategy to recapture lost momentum or get unstuck from the myriad hassles of daily operations? So you go on a retreat, get a facilitator, talk for hours about a strategic plan, form committees, summarize your findings to the group. Someone writes the plan, doles out assignments, and you've signed up for a burst of change.

How often did that work?

In his new book Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries (Simon & Schuster Free Press April 2011), Peter Sims suggests starting very small, with just a "little bet." As he explains:

"a little bet is a low-risk action to discover, develop, and test an idea. Little bets are the at the center of an approach to get to the right idea...without getting stymied by perfectionism, risk-aversion, or excessive planning."
Sims, a consultant who co-authored the leadership classic True North, documents how some of the greatest achievements in business resulted from small-scale micro-experiments that provide real-time intelligence and customer feedback, adaptation, and new versions. From Jeff Bezos at Amazon to Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin at Google, these leaders distrust complex processes and want lots of feedback from customers. By running small experiments with real customers, Sims shows, you develop data, make adjustments, try again. Ultimately, you have the customer-proven results that senior managers love.

Some tips from the book:

Systematically learn from setbacks: To learn from your business decisions, you need a mindset that sees failure as an opportunity to make what you do better. At Pixar, despite an astonishing streak of eleven blockbuster hits, managers live by the credo, "success hides problems." During the planning of the Pixar film, The Incredibles, their most ambitious and complicated film, director Brad Bird made a point of recruiting Pixar's "black sheep," the gadflies and malcontents within the firm who often challenged the status quo.

Drop failures quickly: Create a prototype of an idea or service, and drop it when it fails without pride of authorship. Some may think the social media strategy that helped elect the unlikely Barack Obama to the White House (and it was unlikely just weeks before the Iowa caucuses) was developed by political geniuses and laid out as a strategic plan in three ring binders. In fact, this book points out, the new media operation began as just eight people (all but one in their twenties) throwing out ideas in a meeting with Michelle Obama. From there they would continually try new ideas in a matter of days, analyze data, circulate feedback, learn from failures such as ringtones using lines from Obama speeches. Their approach resulted in the text messaging strategy that became a powerful force to mobilize young and new voters to attend events, register to vote, or go to the polls.

"Smallify" problems: Bing Gordon, a cofounder and the former chief creative officer of Electronic Arts, popularized the process of guiding software teams to break job tasks down into particular problems to be solved within one or two weeks, rather than setting long-term management goals during which teams often got lost. Smallification is a key tenet in agile software development, which emphasizes collaborative teams responding to customer feedback using live software platforms (the familiar Google "beta" tag for new offerings under development is an example).

Learn a lot from a little: Test your little steps on extreme users, the highly informed, intensely passionate consumers or peers whose evaluations will be rich in feedback. P&G Global Open Innovation executive Chris Thoen told Sims, "Choose a few consumers that you really feel are the early adopters, test it with them, see what they like about it and what they don't like about it...if it appeals to them, use them to optimize the idea further..."

Sims also offers little bets techniques we can use in any situation when we're stuck and need a spark:

  • If you're given a goal at work, start by scribbling down ideas, and walking around and talking to colleagues to hear their reactions;
  • Get out of the office for an hour to observe potential users for your ideas and observe how they behave (I used to do this in bookstores);
  • Spend an hour with your child as they explore a new interest, such as a new toy, encouraging them to figure out how it works as they go.
Do you find "experimental innovation" an asset in your work? What "down and dirty" prototypes have you used to test an idea or product?

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Photo by Myrrien.
  • Herb Schaffner

    Herb Schaffner is the president of Schaffner Media Partners, which develops business book and media projects. He is the former Publisher of Business and Finance at McGraw-Hill Professional, and Senior Editor at HarperCollins/HarperBusiness. Books that Schaffner edited, developed, and supervised during his years in publishing won best book awards from The Economist, 800-CEO Read, BusinessWeek, The Financial Times/Goldman Sachs, Strategy+Business Magazine, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. He has acquired and edited dozens of bestselling books including Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, Always On, Make or Break, Freedom from Oil, and many others. During his career Schaffner also worked as director of speechwriting and public affairs to a governor, as a communications director at two universities, and for the highly influential Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC. He also coauthored leading reference works on labor and the workforce.