Challenge the Status Quo with Little Bets
A black sheep mentality can lead to big breakthroughs for an organization, especially when executed in little bets.
Depressed by the abysmal state of affairs in government, corporate and media institutions, a loose collection of Bay Area authors, thinkers and entrepreneurs established a group called The Black Sheep.
The name came from Pixar, specifically a 2008 interview that Stanford professors Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao conducted with Brad Bird, the director behind Pixar movies The Incredibles and Ratatouille. By the time Bird interviewed with Pixar’s cofounders, Steve Jobs, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, they had already produced three blockbuster films, yet they told Bird that their biggest fear was becoming complacent and invited him to challenge their normal approaches to doing work. Bird would soon get his chance.
Not long after he joined Pixar, members of the technical team told Bird that his ideas for The Incredibles were too ambitious and would be too costly. “Give us the black sheep,” Bird recalled saying. “I want artists who are frustrated. I want the ones who have another way of doing things that nobody’s listening to.”
Bird and his black sheep colleagues ultimately made The Incredibles for less money per minute than the previous film (Finding Nemo), and it won worldwide critical acclaim.
That Pixar (of all places) has a culture that encourages black sheep to speak out to challenge the status quo inspired us. Pixar’s DNA exudes a relentless desire to invent new approaches to solving seemingly intractable problems.
The “leaders” in positions of power today have kicked the can so far down the road and become so disconnected from the people they are supposed to be serving that we’re living in crisis mode, hanging over the precipice.
Clearly, the old way of working, largely from the top down, isn’t working. The world is desperate for creative change from the bottom up, fueled by black sheep.
But how do we invent from the bottom up, especially if it’s not a logical extension from the past?
Our education system and management training place great emphasis on teaching us about facts that are already known, such as historical information or scientific tables, and then testing us in order to measure how much we’ve retained about that body of knowledge.
Those skills work perfectly well for many situations, but not when doing something new.
As education and creativity researcher and author Sir Ken Robinson puts it, “We are educating people out of their creativity.”
But it’s still there. And unleashing our creativity, however deeply it’s hidden, begins with little bets.
“Little bets” are concrete actions taken to discover, test and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new or solve open-ended problems.
I used to work as a venture capital investor, where I learned that most successful entrepreneurs don’t begin with brilliant ideas—they discover them. They think of learning the way most people think of failure.
When Howard Schultz launched what would become Starbucks, he modeled the stores after Italian coffeehouses, a new concept for the United States. Schultz was definitely onto something, but the baristas wore bow ties (which they found very uncomfortable) while customers complained about the menus being written primarily in Italian and the nonstop opera music. What’s more, the stores had no chairs.
“We made a lot of mistakes,” Schultz regularly acknowledges.
Schultz & Co. had to fail a lot to discover the Starbucks that emerged with lots of little bets.
Of course, we all want to make big bets. That’s a Silicon Valley mantra. Be bold. Go big. But people routinely bet big on ideas that aren’t solving the right problems.
Little bets are for learning about problems and opportunities while big bets are for capitalizing upon them once they’ve been identified.
Bleak as the future may seem, hope should not be lost. History shows that we go through cycles if there are empowered individuals and organizations that opt for change. The Black Sheep deeply believe that entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, designers, social change–makers and the creativity within every one of us can rise to meet challenges—large and small—should we choose to find causes, and act upon them.
Being a black sheep is not easy, and that’s the point. But everyone can be one if he or she chooses to act. It is a choice.
What the world needs desperately in this era is a creative movement led by many, yet not controlled by any one person or group. There is no Superman. The answer is all of us—diversely connected.
This is why the revolution will be improvised.
Being a black sheep demands courage, and no one acts alone.
As the technology pioneer Alan Kay put it: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
This is the call of the black sheep.
Now is our time.
As the ancients asked: “If not you, who? If not now, when?”
Invention and reinvention begin with little bets.
Peter Sims is the author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries.