Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

We’re taught from an early age to use certain procedures and rules to analyze and solve problems to come up with the right answers. The emphasis is, of course, on minimizing errors. But what happens when we don’t even know what problems we’re trying to solve? It happens a lot. In his book, Little Bets, author Peter Sims cites many examples of great innovations and achievements that arise not by linear, procedural thinking, but instead by engaging in discovery and making “little bets.” A little bet is a low-risk action taken to discover, develop, and test an idea without getting stymied by the perfectionism, risk-aversion, or excessive planning of big, bold outcomes.

Sims convincingly argues that we need a new model of creativity, focused around gradual improvement and constant innovation. He profiles diverse creative thinkers and doers from Apple CEO Steve Jobs, comedian Chris Rock, Thomas Edison, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, architect Frank Gehry, and the story developers at Pixar Films. These guys have all used methods that unshackle them from the constraints of conventional planning, analytical thinking, and linear problem-solving that our educational system overemphasizes at the expense of creativity.

The author offers 4 tips for entrepreneurs trying to get a business off the ground:

  1. Think about what you can afford to lose, rather what you can expect to gain.
  2. Be curious. Learn a little bit from a lot of people. I don’t care if it’s a cab driver or janitor, everyone you meet knows or does something much better than you do. You can find new lessons and opportunities everywhere if you’re open to it. Curiosity is one of the most distinctive qualities of a great entrepreneur.
  3. Learn a lot from a little. For example, Pixar shows its work-in-progress films to its employees and their kids. Seeking out a small group of these active users of ideas with little bets is a proven way to discover unique insights and desires.
  4. Improvise, test, iterate, and repeat.  Jeff Bezos of often compares Amazon’s strategy of developing opportunities in new markets to “planting seeds” or “going down blind alleys.” ‘Many efforts turn out to be dead ends,’ Bezos says. ‘But every once in a while, you go down an alley and it opens up into this huge, broad avenue.’”

Terry is the business librarian. You can email her ( your questions or schedule a one-on-one session to discuss business needs, from market research to competitor analysis. She also coordinates with community partners to host small business and personal finance events at the library. Terry has an MBA and an MLS.