When Nancy Schwartz asked me what one book had changed my professional life, I scanned my book shelf thinking I’d find something bought and read long ago. But I quickly realized that one of the most powerful books to shape my professional life was one I’m actually reading right now. It’s called Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries (Amazon).

I’m a big fan of 18-month marketing strategies and editorial calendars. So I’m not opposed to the idea of planning, at all.

But when I think back on how my career has grown, it’s had very little to do with planning. I hate that “Where do you want to be in five years?” question. My gut reaction is always, “How the hell am I supposed to know?” While I do find lots of value in the exercise of planning for setting my course in an overall direction, the reality is that my flight path is very much by the seat of my pants, and always has been.

But because everyone else I know seems perfectly happy to talk about five year plans, I’ve always felt like I was doing “it” wrong.

Until Little Bets came along. At last, vindication for my approach to my career and much of life! But more than that, the book is showing me how to really use this natural tendency of mine to be even more productive and ultimately much more strategic. It also just happens to be a perfect approach for nonprofit marketing today, especially online and with social media in particular.

So here’s the concept: Little bets are low-risk actions taken to discover, develop, and test an idea. Where traditional planning emphasizes avoiding problems and mistakes from the outset, the little bets approach emphasizes finding problems and solving them as you go. Turns out this approach is behind many of the creative innovations in our world today, from minds as diverse as comedian Chris Rock, architect Frank Gehry, and the movie makers at Pixar. It’s how Twitter was born.

How does this play out? I think this passage from page 49 sums it up best:

Practicing little bets frees us from the expectation that we should know everything we need to know before we begin. Redefining problems and failures as opportunities focuses our attention on insights to be gained rather than worrying about false starts or the risks we’re taking. By focusing on doing, rather than planning, learning about the risks and pitfalls of ideas rather than trying to predict them with precision up-front, an experimental approach develops growth mind-set muscles.

I’m still reading the book. I’ll explain more of the key concepts in a later post — including the value of inquisitiveness, humor, and immersion in creating innovation. But I’m willing to bet — a big bet — that many of you will find Little Bets liberating and empowering in your nonprofit marketing work.