Published May 30, 2012
Do you feel lucky? Luck in business is not just a roll of the dice that comes up in your favor. It's more complicated than that, say Thor Muller and Lane Becker, the co-founders of Get Satisfaction, an online customer community platform used by more than 65,000 companies. Good luck is hard work.
The best kind of luck — those unexpected discoveries we call serendipity — is the luck we attract to ourselves, they say. Good luck — serendipity — is part of a virtuous cycle. That notion was recognized early on by one of our nation's founding fathers.
"I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it," Thomas Jefferson wrote.
What Jefferson was getting at is that luck and our ability to harness luck to work in our favor is neither innate nor indiscriminate; it's the product of exercising a learned set of skills and discipline. Some 200 years later, Muller and Becker have picked up on that theme in their new book, "Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business" (Jossey-Bass, 2012). They call their approach to luck "planned serendipity."
The book itself, the authors say, is a product of planned serendipity inspired by their work at Get Satisfaction. They began to observe patterns exhibited by "lucky" companies, which sparked their research into the interrelationship between luck, serendipity, chance, creativity and business.
"It's fun to write a book about luck," Becker told BusinessNewsDaily. ""You go out and find people who are really successful and ask them what things in their careers were so important. Based on those conversations, we reverse-engineered the innate skills we called serendipity."
What they found, Muller said, was that the things that mattered most were the least predictable. They also discovered a striking parallel between scientific breakthroughs and business breakthroughs.
"You have a set of practices you do every day — go to the lab, go to the office," he said. "And an anomaly occurs. Why does one scientist seize that when others don't?"
It's because serendipity occurs when something unexpected happens and is not disregarded, Muller said. He offers the example of the sweetener NutraSweet. It was discovered by researcher James Schlatter who was working on research with amino acids to develop a treatment for ulcers. When he licked his finger to pick up a piece of paper, he discovered that one of his experiments had produced a phenomenally sweet substance. Rather than discard the results and write it off as a flawed experiment, he recognized the commercial potential.
If he'd found the ulcer medicine he was looking for, that would have been luck, Muller said.
"Discovering something incredibly sweet and recognizing it had commercial application was serendipity," he said.
And while it's the large-scale lightning strikes of serendipity that seize our imagination, there is also a need for encountering small daily serendipities.
Their research led Muller and Becker to believe that serendipity can be planned and incorporated into the way any company conducts business. The enemy of serendipity is routine, they believe.
"How do you make breaking out of your routine part of your routine" is the challenge, Muller said. "There's a lot of paradox and oxymoron in serendipity."
Business accelerators and other collaborative workplace arrangements are particularly good examples of how serendipity can be baked into organizational space, Muller said.
The raw material of serendipity
"The raw material of serendipity is creating more opportunities to collide with something," he said.
By juxtaposing disparate organizations in close quarters they create a fertile ground for the cross-pollination of ideas.
You can't measure serendipity, they say. What you can measure is the level of engagement around certain kinds of activities. You can measure the behavior itself.
"Silicon Valley is really good at this," Becker said. "It's not an accident. There's a culture that allows for it and allows designed activities and structures that reward it and encourage it."
Much of serendipity is seeing something that nobody else sees, Muller and Becker believe.
They cite another example from industry in the 1960s. Spence Silver was part of a research team at 3M that was trying to develop stronger adhesives for use in manufacturing aircraft. Working independently, he went off the reservation one afternoon and added more of one ingredient than was considered safe. The results, while not harmful, were not what he had expected. He had created a magical adhesive that could be endlessly reused. Silver had presided over the invention of what came to be known as Post-It Notes.
The ability to see anomalies
Serendipity is also about the ability to see anomalies and hang on to them. Tenacity is a virtue.
"Sometimes serendipity also involves forgetting about conventional wisdom," Muller said. "Conventional wisdom would have said, 'A weaker adhesive is not valuable. Why are you still thinking about it?'"
Small businesses, almost by definition, are more open to this kind of question, Muller said.
"Especially in the early days, they don't know what success looks like for their business," he said. "It's when they figure out what success looks like that their trouble begins. That's when they start looking for the expected as they scale their business and raise more money. It becomes more and more difficult to adapt to the unexpected."
Most businesses start out with an open mindset.
"The problem is, they lose it," Muller said. "They forget. The question is, can they find it? And sometimes it takes an existential crisis."
As companies grow and mature, organizational complexity is inevitable. But scale doesn't have to be the enemy of serendipity.
"As the business grows, it does have to become segmented," Becker said. "The businesses that were the most successful with this were those that figured out how to remove hierarchy. It's not about eliminating hierarchy. It's looking for controlled and interesting ways you can allow hierarchy to collapse appropriately."
Serendipity is agnostic
Serendipity is agnostic when it comes to organizational size and resources, Muller and Becker say.
"This is where small business has a huge leg up on large businesses," Becker said. "In my experience, people who start small businesses are passionate about it. More often than not they see something that they want to do differently. That gives you the beginner's mind, that willingness to see everything fresh and new. That's why small business in this country trumps large businesses all the time."
Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.
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