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September 2011
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TD Magazine

Place Your Bets

"If I find 10 thousand ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is just one more step forward." (Thomas Edison, who conducted more than 9,000 experiments before inventing the light bulb.)

Edison was a classic experimental innovator, one who reached his big breakthrough by gradually placing "little bets." Sims describes a variety of real-life innovators who approached the creative process by determining what they were willing to lose, instead of calculating what they expected to gain. By making little bets, Bill Hewlett led HP to pioneer handheld calculators, Colonel Casey Haskins developed West Point's military training, Howard Schultz refined the Starbucks experience, and comedian Chris Rock perfected his stand-up routine.

Sims's little bets approach includes certain fundamental elements: learning by doing; encouraging play and improvisation; immersing oneself in the world for new insight; defining problems and needs before seeking solutions; leveraging small wins in pursuit of larger goals; and repeatedly refining as better insights arise.

Those who place little bets embrace a "growth mindset" - they have a desire to learn rather than a desire to look smart, and they are not derailed by failure, but use it for their success. These innovators are often driven by a healthy perfectionism that strives for excellence and quality and holds others to their high standards.

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The antithesis to this method is a marriage to careful planning, risk aversion, and forms of unhealthy perfectionism such as the need for approval and obsessing over past mistakes. Such linear planning values thinking in order to do, but Sims claims that an emphasis on doing to be able to think opens new worlds of discovery and creativity.

Little Bets flows with copious anecdotes - from President Obama's campaign to the first animation film produced by Pixar - to illustrate how practicing the genius of play, using problems as solutions and questions as answers, learning a little from a lot and a lot from a little, and celebrating small wins comprise the strategy of some of the greatest innovators, inventors, and entrepreneurs of all time.

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"It all begins with one little bet. What will be yours?"

Three cups!

About the Author

Community of Practice Manager, ATD  Ann Parker is senior manager of the Human Capital Community of Practice and the Senior Leaders & Executives Community of Practice at ATD. Prior to this position, she worked at ATD for five years in an editorial capacity, primarily for TD magazine, and most recently as a senior writer and editor. In this role, Ann had the privilege to talk to many training and development practitioners, hear from a variety of prominent industry thought leaders, and develop a rich understanding of the profession's content.

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