Little Bets: A NewPublicHealth Q&A With Author Peter Sims

Jan 31, 2012, 2:15 PM, Posted by


Peter Sims is a best-selling author and entrepreneur. His new book is Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. As he describes them, “little bets” are low-risk actions or small steps taken to discover, develop, and test an idea. Sims found that successful big thinkers from across industries used this principle in their work, from the comedian Chris Rock who develops new comedy routines by making little bets with small audiences; to Army General H.R. McMaster who takes small bets and makes frequent adjustments in planning counterinsurgency strategies; to architect Frank Gehry who starts building plans on small scraps of paper. Sims draws on his training from Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the “d-school”) in using a design thinking to approach to problems: “generating ideas… based on building up solutions, rather than starting with the answer.”

Though the design thinking approach has applications for any field, the possibilities for public health are broad: experiment by taking small chances with small groups or small communities; immerse by getting out into the world and truly understanding what a population or community is experiencing; define specific problems and needs before trying to solve them; and iterate by frequently taking insights from the field and adjusting strategy accordingly. NewPublicHealth caught up with Peter Sims to get his take on “little bets” and how they might apply to public health.

NewPublicHealth: Why did you write this book? What inspired you to take on “Little Bets”?

Peter Sims: As I mentioned in the book, I had been exposed to this whole world of design thinking, and the method for building up ideas rather than starting with the answer, using things like prototyping or playful techniques. I was astonished that I had never learned to think that way before. I felt like it was a big problem. I hope that by writing the book that other people could benefit from it the same way I had benefitted from being exposed to this world through the Stanford Design School and also through the research the book took me on. My research spanned all these different ways of thinking, whether it was in the military or at Pixar or among comedians and entrepreneurs—they all had these parallels that I hadn’t realized before.

NPH: Thinking about the people you chose to profile—it ranges from Chris Rock to General McMaster to Frank Gehry—what brought these people to your attention?

Peter Sims: I was just curious about how people solved open-ended problems. In my research, it became clear that people from all these different fields were thinking using the same principles. It was eerie to see the parallels. It seemed like that was an important story to tell.

NPH: There is one story in the book of how an economist came to establish a microfinance loan bank through a process of living in a poverty-stricken village to better understand its inhabitants' challenges. Can you share that story, and tell us what we can take away from it?

Peter Sims: Muhammad Yunus was an economist working in Bangladesh, and he was determined to eradicate poverty, but none of his theories were able to solve the problem of people streaming into the city and dying of starvation. He had to go to a small village nearby named Jobra and he spent the year there trying to understand the problems of poverty from what he called “the worm’s eye view.” That meant literally going from house to house to house, asking questions. In the case of one basket-weaver, he sought to understand how she took inputs of bamboo, turned them into baskets and sold them. He came to understand that she was essentially living in bonded slavery by being so dependent on one set of middlemen for both the bamboo she was using and for selling the baskets as well. He found that by taking a “little bet,” allowing her to buy her own bamboo with a small microloan, she could actually make a bit of a profit margin and get out from under this living slavery. The small bet was a $27 loan for the whole village. The Grameen Bank grew out of that.

When you’re trying to understand needs or problems, you can do it through stumbling upon the answer through experiments and research or, as Yunus did, by immersing yourself into the world. It’s an approach of studying a world like an anthropologist and by looking for hidden, unarticulated needs. By asking a lot of those questions, by using techniques from ethnography and from anthropology, you can find problems or needs in a way that’s not apparent when you’re just sitting in your office.

NPH: Thinking about intractable health and health care challenges, what lessons might the public health world draw from what you’ve learned that we can apply to better health?

Peter Sims: We think we need to have answers or solutions before we start doing things. The way to discover new ideas is really to spend much less time thinking and planning and much more time doing and learning. We can do that by taking small bets and getting out into the world and try to piece together new solutions as you go. The world is too complex for brilliant solutions off the shelf. Think about what can you do that’s affordable and achievable that will help you get one step closer to where you’re hoping to go.

NPH: Another concept from the book is learning quickly from failures. Can you expand on that?

Peter Sims: This notion of failing quickly to learn fast is not a new one to many entrepreneurs, because they see failure essentially as learning. Pixar uses the same principle. They value failing quickly and quickly correcting to make sure they’re going down the right story path before they invest too much. But that’s counterintuitive to what we’re taught in school. There’s this enormous focus on error prevention, and so it becomes a barrier to learning. The notion of using rough, inexpensive prototypes made of cardboard or crumpled pieces of paper allows you to begin this process of discovering small problems that will allow you to discover something that leads to a much bigger idea. The takeaway is—do something! You’re going to learn as you go, so err on the side of doing things quickly and constantly iterating.

NPH: What’s next for you?

Peter Sims: I’m doing a lot of events for Little Bets. I speak all around the country, and now increasingly all around the world. I’m also working with some talented people on a business called Little Bets Labs. It takes Little Bets principles and brings them into organizations.

NPH: Has writing this book changed you?

Peter Sims: Yes, completely. This has opened up a creative side of me that inspired the passion to write the book. It’s a side of me that had been dormant for a while. Now, people say “You’re such a creative guy,” but really that’s just the process at work. It’s incredibly empowering. This can all be learned. I’ve seen the transformation in many, many people.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.