My Bookshelf: Little Bets

Little Bets book coverjpgAs someone who loves to try things out, I love  Little Bets by Peter Sims for what I take as its central message: don’t try to get everything perfect right out of the gate. Look for the right setting to test your ideas and be prepared to turn whatever feedback you get into the next iteration of the idea. And then the next version, and the next. Sims has issued a great call for how to keep a growth mindset — and assume that any and every small fail can eventually become part of something great.

What does a book that tells stories about Pixar Studios and comedian Chris Rock have to do with social justice communications? As social justice communicators, we are constantly testing ideas that are new and novel. We need to keep paying attention to what our audiences are interested in, how they perceive us, and how relevant our communications are. We need to be nimble, responsive, and take the right lesson from feedback. This nimblenss comes from the “little bets” he’s encouraging.

It’s not like he’s just saying, “plan to screw up, then fix it.” (Oh, wait, he might be saying that.) But I interpret it more as:

  • Take a chance on your idea, even if you haven’t figured it all out yet.
  • Look for a way to implement it quickly and without risking dramatic failure. Come up with the correct scale for testing.
  • Watch carefully how it works and doesn’t work. Don’t distract yourself with your internal dialog about how it sucks that it’s not perfect.
  • Take the right lesson from it. Don’t rush to find the lesson.
  • Revise your idea and figure out what your next little bet is.
  • Rinse and repeat.

But don’t just take my word for it: here’s a Q&A with the author of Little Bets.

I can think of many concrete examples of how this approach can influence your communications. Here are two:

  • You could be A/B testing your subject lines with a segment of your email list to see what sort of subject lines lead to more of your subscribers opening your emails. Then send the more effective subject lines to the majority of the list.
  • If your organization wants to start using video, don’t spend all your money to produce one long video, then no more videos till your next fiscal year. Try a series of smaller-scale videos so that by the third or fourth one, you have learned how your audience engages with your videos. Then make decisions about how to fund a video strategy based on that.

I’m going to offer two caveats for my admiration of this book:

1- One of his examples is off the mark: how a U.S. Army general used a “little bets” philosophy to update our approach to the military occupation of Iraq. How to improve an illegal occupation isn’t a neutral situation and he could’ve made his point without it.

2- Sims doesn’t address how forces like institutional racism or sexism get in the way of an effective “little bets” strategy and how to specifically counter that. He doesn’t acknowledge the reality that when people who are targeted by racism (for example) move into professional fields where we’re under-represented, we are not given room to fail. Any failure is treated as evidence that ‘we’re not well-suited for this sort of thing’ and can easily become the basis for discouragement.

The pre-judgment of people’s skills that comes from racism or sexism complicates the “little bets” approach in that some groups of people in the workforce then don’t have the option to experiment. The freedom to fail shouldn’t just come as a privilege, yet it often is a privileged position — and that is the enemy of the “little bets” philosophy.

Just because one of his examples of an effective “little bets” strategist is Chris Rock doesn’t mean that anywhere he acknowledges that perhaps we are not all free to fail in the same way. We have to explicitly identify and release ourselves from the mantra that “we don’t have room for failure” and also “maybe you’re just not good at ____” if we want to make the best use of the “little bets” approach.

I still recommend the book. 

I encourage you to cuddle up with this book on a rainy day and read it. Or, on a sunny day, look for places that you already do this now, and you can look around for other places you can introduce a “let’s try” approach to your communications that won’t have catastrophic effects if it turns out your hunch is wrong.

Little Bets is a great way to keep a growth mindset and a way to keep evolving our communications. Thank you, Peter Sims!

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