In Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries, Peter Sims breaks down the process of starting small — of taking incremental, experimental steps, which involves failing quickly as a way of learning fast, and trying out imperfect ideas. This approach frees individuals and organizations from the kind of “conventional planning, analytical thinking, and linear problem solving prized by our educational system,” Sims writes, and makes them more receptive to insights and breakthroughs. Q It’s the same process, Sims told Convene, that he himself used to bring Little Bets into print. “This book started with a several-page prototype that I took to literary agents and fellow
authors,” he said. “The first literary agent I spoke with had noth- ing nice to say about my three-page prototype. In fact it was as if I just got punched in the stomach when I got off the phone [with her]. The only thing she liked was that the subtitle of this docu- ment was the term ‘Little Bets’ — and I got that term by putting a prototype in front of a former senior executive for Hewlett Packard. So the whole idea for this book actually came about through using the approach [I outline in the book], and I learned through the process what was going to work and what wasn’t.” We asked Sims to share how meeting planners can employ
that process to inject creativity into the “conventional planning, analytical thinking, and linear problem solving” they engage in to competently do their jobs.
How would you suggest that meeting planners go about taking risks — i.e., trying new things at their events? If your goal is to do something a little more [innovative], then that is when I would recommend using little bets. Very specifi- cally, that process begins with a prototype — just a piece of pa- per that has ideas on it that you share with other people whom you trust or whose opinion you respect. ... It’s what novelist Anne Lamott called “a sh*tty first draft.” The point is that whenever you are trying to create something new or different, you really don’t know what the right opportunities are or prob- lems that you are going to be solving. You have to go out to dif- ferent stakeholders with something tangible that you can learn with. And a prototype is a great way of doing that. Some comedians do this when they design a new comedy act.
70 pcma convene February 2012
Chris Rock will go into a small club and he will try hundreds — if not thousands — of ideas [in a comedy routine] to see what works and what doesn’t. Once he finds the joke idea that is reso- nating with the audience, he will keep building on that until it turns into something he can incorporate into an act that he can take on the big stage for HBO. But you have to find test audi- ences and do a lot of iterations quickly using prototypes so that you dial in on the right problems and opportunities. That is the whole goal of making little bets. Long before you get to the actual conference, you should be
making little bets on representative people who will be attend- ing that conference — representative stakeholders, whether it is going to be the attendees, the partners, the brand partners, the sponsors, or members of the board overseeing the decision- making for, say, what speakers come. The architect Frank Gehry designed Disney Hall [in Los An-
geles] with many different stakeholders involved, including the government, the orchestra that was going to be playing inside the hall, and many different people who were funding it. Now that was a very difficult process, but the way he was able to get every- body on the same page with something that was a dramatically new building ... was to use a model. That process began with him using cardboard and duct-tape prototypes that he shared with these stakeholders. He got their insights and feedback to make sure he was solving the right problems. He didn’t have to use all of their advice — not like he was asking for advice, he was just trying to understand what was most important to those stake- holders, so that he could then go back in his creative process and be aware of constraints. Constraints can also be time or money.