June 29th, 2011
Talking with Peter Sims
Last week our crew sat down with Peter Sims, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, to have a discussion about innovation, experimentation, and the creative process. Sims shared his research on leading creative minds – from Frank Gehry to Pixar filmmakers – and had some great insights on how innovation comes through small iterations, rather than one “big idea.” Here are a few highlights from our conversation:
On Little Bets:
For the past two years I went out and looked at how creative people actually work, whether they’re comedians like Chris Rock or Pixar filmmakers. How does the Pixar process actually work? How does the military do counter-insurgency? How does someone like Frank Gehry work? How does he develop his ideas? And the interesting thing to me was that they all used a very similar set of methods and had a similar question at the core.
On the Creative Process:
When Gehry begins a new project, hes extremely afraid that he’s not going to know what to do, and he’ll procrastinate, make phone calls, run errands that are useless and he calls it healthy insecurity. But what actually gets him through the break is to start crumpling up pieces of paper, and just begin the process. He gets through this by making these little bets, this process of prototyping, this process of willing to be imperfect, to go from what Pixar filmmakers call “going from ‘suck’ to ‘non-suck.’” When Pixar filmmakers begin coming up with ideas for a movie, they have a basic idea of where they want to go they use a lot of storyboarding, and they are willing to just be really shitty at first with prototypes so that they can show them internally and ask “are we going in the right direction?”
Most people want to be perfect. We’ve been taught from a young age to minimize errors, to get things right, and that continues throughout the education process. Dr. Carol Dweck has found that there are two basic types of responses to failure and setback – people either have a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset.” People with strong fixed mindsets think their talents and abilities are set in stone, as opposed to someone like Michael Jordan, who can improve their talents and abilities over time by exerting more effort. Dweck says that anybody can develop more of a growth mindset – anybody can be willing to be less perfect, exert more effort and see that their abilities, and their work, can be improved.
As John Lasseter, The Chief Creative officer [at Pixar], says, “We don’t actually finish films we release them.” They’re absolutely perfectionists. But there are two types of perfectionism there’s healthy perfectionism, which is striving for excellence which is Pixar. And there’s unhealthy perfectionism, which is just worrying about what everyone is going to think of you all the time. Pixar creates this healthy perfectionism. They dont say “this is the answer.” They say “you’re getting closer and closer to it.”
On “The Big Idea:”
Instantaneous brilliant ideas are extremely rare and increasingly nonexistent. Prodigies like Mozart are of course very rare, and what’s much more common is to work the way Beethoven worked, where it’s much like Chris Rock or Pixar’s process working through tireless drafts and iterations until you build up to something that’s quite unique over time. But we still have this belief that we have to have this great idea before we do something. And a lot of clients have that expectation. It’s kind of a Mad Men mentality.
The reality is that great ideas, the best creative inspirations, come through a process of many little steps pieced together through lots of iteration to make sure you’re solving the right problems. So then it pieces together into something that’s quite beautiful, but you couldn’t have planned or predicted it at the outset. We’re living in this world where people think we have to have great ideas, while the entrepreneurs, the creators what you’re doing all work in a very different way. In some places, at the top levels they’re still expected to have the perfect idea. It’s the old creative mentality.
Michelangelo destroyed his sketches so that he could have this perfect thing when it’s done – it’s a Romantic ideal. We really need to undo about 500 years of history.