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Make a series of little bets pay off

by on
in HR Management,Performance Reviews

The 50 or so people in the audience of a small New Jersey comedy club called Stress Factory are usually surprised when comedian Chris Rock shows up unannounced, with a scribbled-on yellow legal notepad in hand.

Rock is there to try out new ideas, nearly all of which fail.

Audience members start whispering to one another. Anticipation fills the room.

Then he begins his routine, an informal, conversational performance that doesn’t square with what audience members expect. He closely takes note of the audience’s behavior: the nodding heads or shifting body language.

During the 45-minute routine, most of his jokes fall flat. In fact, the performance can be painful to watch.  

But by the time he’s finished, he’ll have tried out hundreds or thousands of ideas, with only a handful making the final cut.

To do an hour-long show on cable television, Rock must test and retest every joke and transition. He parses out the six or seven parts of a joke to figure out which elements and combinations work.

Any serious comedian will get on stage every night he can, especially when developing new material, to sweat over every word in search of little wins.

In the same way, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos encourages employees to constantly try new things. Because it’s such an important company goal, whether or not employees experiment is part of their performance reviews.

This certainly hasn’t been easy: Bezos and his team have had to endure significant criticism over the years for failed experiments. However, Amazon’s exploratory men­tality has spawned continual breakthroughs, such as Amazon stores, which allow small vendors to sell products on its site, now a significant part of the company’s growth.

Chris Rock and Jeff Bezos are examples of people who approach problems in a nonlinear manner using little bets. It’s an iterative, trial-and-error approach to gradually build up to breakthroughs.

Lesson: Prodigies are rare. But anyone can use little bets to unlock creative ideas. Instead of trying to hit narrow targets on unknown horizons, make a series of little bets.

— Adapted from “Little Bets,” Peter Sims.

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