GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Learning To Be Lucky – Putting Planned Serendipity to Work by Thor Muller and Lane Becker, co-authors of "Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business."
Why is it that tech entrepreneurs so seldom write business plans anymore?
These detailed and expertly presented blueprints for a new company, once the most essential component of starting a business, have become an open joke in Silicon Valley. The reason they’ve fallen out of fashion, as any twenty-something startup CEO will explain to you, is that for a new company there is far more that is unknown than is known.
Today virtually everyone agrees that early-stage startups should be nimble and open to change based on new findings.
It is only after a business has matured, having demonstrated repeatable sales and a team that can execute, that the company should commit to an actual business plan. This, we all believe, is the hoped for moment when a business finally achieves predictability and scale.
This, at last, is success!
Yet this is also precisely the point where so many companies blow it.
Why? By trading away an ability to harness unexpected findings in exchange for “stability” they end up unable to thrive in uncertainty. And our business environment today—in just about any field you can point at—is nothing if not uncertain.
Serendipity At Work
Yet some companies (and the people within them) have figured out how to harness the unexpected regardless of their size or industry. They have mastered what we call the skills of planned serendipity, a method for productively engaging at the edge of the unknown.
Consider James Schlatter, a researcher at a large, established pharmaceutical firm GD Searle. One day he was mixing chemicals in search of an anti-ulcer medication when a particular combination surprised him by bubbling over the beaker, ending up on his hands. Later that day, he licked his finger to turn the page of a document and, in a moment that would be forever burned into his memory, was overcome by the sweetest flavor that he’d ever tasted.
"How do we respond when we stumble on something that isn’t part of our plan? Do we recognize and explore the opportunity or do we stick to our established path, studiously avoiding distraction?""
Schlatter had been on a quest to find a new drug but had found something quite different: a remarkable artificial sweetener. The gap between what he and his team expected and what it found would have been insurmountable in most businesses. But somehow this company, publicly traded and with thousands of employees, was able to shift its attentions, re-align its activities to this new opportunity. The result was aspartame, the artificial sweetener that has become ubiquitous in grocery stores as Nutrasweet, today a multi-billion dollar product line.
Most of us don’t work in big pharma, but virtually all of us spend our days, just like Schlatter, working hard to achieve clearly-defined goals, driven by a strategic plan. Yet how do we respond when we stumble on something that isn’t part of our plan? Do we recognize and explore the opportunity or do we stick to our established path, studiously avoiding distraction? How we answer this determines whether or not we are able to adapt in today’s breakneck-paced environment.
What’s Luck Got to Do With It?
What Schlatter and his company had experienced was classic serendipity—looking for one thing but finding another. We could say that they had lucked out; after all, his discovery had been completely unintentional.
But when we look closer we see that GD Searle could only have created NutraSweet by exercising a very intentional set of skills—the very opposite of how we think of luck. These skills of planned serendipity, and not chance alone, are what allowed this company to create, recognize and ultimately take advantage of an unexpected opportunity.
The positive impact of these skills is true for all of us, whether we’re dealing with small serendipitous findings that improve a project or a process, or earth-shaking Eureka! moments like discovering a new artificial sweetener.
Some of these skills are particular to individuals. For instance, Schlatter’s experimental style, which some might have called sloppy (he did end up with chemical residue on his hands, after all!), created the motion needed to collide with chance—in this case the contents of the overflowing beaker. Yet this wasn’t enough. He also had the mental preparation that allowed him to notice the importance of the sweet taste even though focused on another task.
Other skills practiced by the organization as a whole. In another company, Schlatter might not have taken the time to report his finding to his managers, and even if he did he likely would have been instructed to get back to his “real work.” Instead he alerted his colleagues to the serendipitous discovery, and the company responded by diverging from its well-crafted plan to pursue this breakthrough.
The best thing about these skills of planned serendipity (eight in total) is that they are learnable. We can go out and design our offices and processes to encourage creative collisions. We can create incentives in our teams for discovering unexpected opportunities. We can cultivate the decision-making skills to take new paths, and harness new technology to pursue them.
We can, in short, learn to be luckier.
Thor Muller and Lane Becker are co-authors of "GET LUCKY: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business" (April 17, 2012; Jossey-Bass), and co-founders of several companies including Get Satisfaction, a platform for creating customer communities based on products and brands they care about. They are based in San Francisco.