Peter Sims is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur. He is the author of is Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, from Simon & Schuster: Free Press. Previously, he was the co-author with Bill George of True North, the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek best-selling book, and he worked in venture capital with Summit Partners, a leading investment company, including as part of the team that established the firm’s London Office.
His work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Tech Crunch, and Fortune and he’s a contributor to the Reuters, Fast Company, and Harvard Business Review blogs. He received an M.B.A. from Stanford Business School where he and several classmates established a popular course on leadership and has had a long collaboration with faculty at Stanford’s Institute of Design (the d.school). He frequently speaks or advises at corporations, associations, and universities, including Google, Eli Lilly, Cisco, ConAgra, Pixar, and Stanford University.
He lives in San Francisco and his great-great-great grandfather, Jacob Gundlach, founded Gundlach Bundschu (GunBun) in Sonoma, California’s oldest family-owned winery, which is run today by his cousins who, unlike Peter, know a lot about wine.
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Morris: Before discussing any if your books, a few general questions. First, when and why did you begin your association with Stanford’s Institute of Design (the d.school)?
Sims: I was introduced to George Kembel, the cofounder and Executive Director of the d.school in 2002. George became my design thinking teacher and mentor, while I shared about my experiences as an entrepreneur, investor, and student of leadership and entrepreneurship with George and his d.school colleagues. Understanding design methods literally changed the way I think; all of a sudden, I was immensely more creative, and the key insight I had was that those methods overlapped with the way entrepreneurs worked in the unknown. That became the basis for Little Bets.
Morris: What business lessons have you since learned from that association that have direct relevance to successful change initiatives in almost any organization, whatever its size and nature may be? For example, is it possible to design initiatives that will avoid or overcome cultural resistance?
Sims: There are a few principles from design that will influence the business world for years to come. The first is the ability to do rapid, low-cost prototyping at the early stages of developing ideas. We never learned that in business school, yet planning in PowerPoint and Excel is often a terrible waste of time when the answers exist outside the office, in the unarticulated needs of potential users of that idea. That’s where ethnographic observation and need-finding techniques from design, the kind used by anthropologists, play an important role. People in business are surprisingly bad at truly understanding their customers’ needs. Market research doesn’t work for identifying unarticulated needs; just ask Steve Jobs who often says, “People don’t know what they want if they haven’t seen it.”
Morris: Thomas Edison once observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Here’s my question: Even after having designed the best strategy, what should leaders do if there is no buy-in?
Sims: I’ve experienced this; it happens all the time. If there is no buy-in, leaders should wonder if they are hallucinating. That’s one reason I’m very happy to see the rise of a number of schools of thought featured in Little Bets, such as design, lean startups, and counterinsurgency that advocate failing quickly to learn fast, in order to test assumptions and build on gains that work. We’re living in an era that rewards bottom up innovation, yet top-down thinking is still the dominant management norm, an outgrowth of industrial management. The world is far too uncertain for top-down management – just ask Generals in the Army as they’ve learned in the Middle East, where they don’t know the problems they’ll encounter each day. They have to be able to rapidly adapt.
Morris: In your opinion, are investment opportunities for venture capital firms better, worse, or about the same today as they were when you were associated with Summit Partners? Please explain.
Sims: The market is far more competitive and saturated with capital today than it was several years ago. As the investment hold periods get longer, and the return profiles fall, venture capital as an industry is going through a recalibration, where name brand firms will make it, while a lot of dumb money will go away. In addition, the social media valuations we see today, such as Linked In at 30+ times revenue, or Facebook valued the way it is indicates a bubble. The only question I cannot answer is how long that bubble will last.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to True North, a book you co-authored with Bill George. For those who have not as yet read it, what is “true north” and what is its significance?
Sims: Your True North represents your most deeply held values and aspirations.
Morris: What are the defining characteristics of “authentic leadership”?
Sims: Bill George defined authentic leadership along five dimensions in his book Authentic Leadership, most importantly leading from an ethical set of values, and a sense of purpose.
Morris: Throughout history, who do you think offer the best examples of an “authentic” leader? Please explain.
Sims: Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Jane Adams, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. Oprah and Pixar’s Ed Catmull is a great modern day example, as are the leaders Jim Collins profiles as Level 5 Leaders in Good to Great.
Morris: Were Hitler and Stalin authentic leaders? Please explain.
Sims: No, because they weren’t ethical.
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