simplicity small bets

Why small bets make the biggest difference


Making simplicity small bets gives you a low risk, highly engaging process to make changes that stick.

Adapt quickly, or die fast.

As the much quoted work of Richard Foster from Yale School of Management showed, the lifespan of publically-listed companies is declining fast. It fell from 67 years in 1920s, to around 18 years in 2011 for S&P companies1. There have been many well-known names that have suffered a similar fate – Comet, Kodak, Blockbuster to name just a few.

In an ever more rapidly changing world, we need to be able to adapt. But we all know adapting is hard. Big change programmes have a notoriously poor success rate.the problem is not only the difficultly to change, it’s also the difficultly to change fast enough. Often, by the time we’ve made a big change, it’s time for us to change again. Or worse still, we were too busy to change in the first place.

In Peter Sims’ book Little Bets2, he shares the case of the US Military. During the Cold War, the military had become highly efficient, fighting a very predictable Soviet strategy with sophisticated models and pre-approved solutions. The Vietnam War changed everything.

The Viet Cong’s tactics shifted continuously, leaving Robert McNamara’s Ford-inspired rational, heavily planned approach in ruins. Since that calamitous war, the US Military has embraced adaptive, guerrilla warfare to be able to react to the unpredictable, shifting realities on the ground. Colonel Casey Haskins of the US Military summed up the new world his organisation faces: “Not only can we not teach doctrinally approved solutions any more [which take roughly two years to be approved], the truth is, we don’t even know all the problems!”


What’s the answer?

Small bets.

Small experiments that people who are living the reality on the ground can identify and run. Often the big change programmes have the vision and theory nailed, but fail by not engaging people in the change, not collecting real life data quickly, and by not uncovering the realities until after implementation.

Lisa Bodell argues in her book Kill The Company3, that instead of more one-size-fits-all change initiatives forced upon employees, we need to embrace small changes that create ripple effects throughout the organization. “Change needs to be experienced and not announced”.

To do this, there needs to be a culture where it is OK to try and fail. A culture where it is not OK to moan and not try to improve.


Examples of small internal bets

If you were to ask your team what frustrates them most, what would they say? Here are some small bets that our clients have tried to save them or their customers time:

  • Too many reports. Stopped sending them for a week to see what happened.
  • Inefficient management meetings. Trialled the next meeting as two shorter but separate sessions to protect time for both strategy and operational decisions.
  • Sales reps overloading customers. Reps from two separate brands trialled joint meetings and communications with one key customer for a month.

What do you need to bear in mind when placing small bets?


Top 5 tips for placing small bets


  1. Only invest time and money that you can afford to lose
  2. Find someone in your management team who gets it, and will cover your back
  3. Place bets where you know you can make real, tangible wins early
  4. Be genuinely willing to learn from the failures (see Dweck’s Growth Mindset4)
  5. Find people who want to try things with you. It’s much more fun and more likely to succeed


Takeaway: It’s clear that in many situations today we cannot develop the answer on a piece of paper or in a statistical model. We need to get our hands dirty and find out the real reasons why the new idea might succeed or fail.

Try it out, invest only what you can afford to lose, and see how small bets really can deliver big wins.




  1. Creative Destruction Whips through Corporate America, Richard Foster, 2012
  2. Little Bets, How Breakthrough Ideas emerge from Small Discoveries, Peter Sims, 2011
  3. Kill The Company, Lisa Bodell, 2012
  4. The power of believing you can improve [Growth Mindset], TED talk, Carol Dweck, 2014