When Success is Born Out of Serendipity
October 31, 2012 Editor 0
Eight years ago I published a book, The Medici Effect, that examines how and why groundbreaking ideas occur at the intersection of different cultures, industries, and disciplines. The book did quite well — it has been translated into 18 languages at this point, become part of the ongoing innovation dialogue, allowed me to present ideas to executives across the world, and to build a unique consulting firm with clients on six continents. So, not surprisingly, I frequently get asked just how I did it.
In response, I usually tell the following story. Once the book had been written, I had to market it. The obvious targets were people in the field of innovation — those working in strategy, R&D, business development, and entrepreneurship. But there are a lot of thought-leaders competing for the attention of that audience. Around the same time that my book came out, so did at least another 15 new books on innovation. My own publisher, HBS Press, published two the very same month as my book — one of them co-authored by heavyweight Clay Christensen. Just getting noticed in this avalanche of concepts and personalities was a challenge. How could a first-time author — not to mention one only two years out of business school — stand out?
One evening, my fiancée (now wife!) came home from her job as a diversity consultant at JP Morgan Chase. We talked frequently about both my book and her work, but had never really made a connection between them. On this day, though, she had just been asked to describe the “business-case for diversity” for her firm. What, they asked her, was the most powerful argument for promoting diversity — outside of ethical and legal ones? As we talked, she realized that the ideas in my book were exactly what she was looking for.
“You say that diverse perspectives drive innovation — whether those diverse perspectives come from different industries, cultures, fields or gender and so on,” my fiancée told me. That, she suggested, was pretty much the most compelling business case for diversity. “I honestly think people would want to hear about it.” She was right. Before I knew it I was presenting the ideas in my book to Steve Black, who at the time headed up investment banking at JP Morgan Chase.
That single conversation changed everything for me. Suddenly, chief diversity officers in corporations around the US started inviting me to speak to their CEOs on how to drive innovation through diversity. In many cases it dramatically changed how a company thought about both diversity and innovation. And, since innovation was on everyone‘s mind, I was soon also working with chief innovation officers and heads of strategy, business development, and emerging markets — anything that required innovation. The demand for my ideas surged and soon went global. The interest took me completely by surprise.
Then one evening, at a client dinner, a strategy executive sitting next to me leaned over and said, “Your side-door strategy has been nothing short of brilliant.” I honestly had no idea what he was talking about and had to ask him what he meant. “Well,” he said, “instead of going directly to chief innovation officers, heads of strategy or R&D folks, you targeted chief diversity officers,” he told me. “And through them you got to people like me.” He was dead serious. “Your strategy,” he said, “was to knock on the one door that other innovation thinkers did not.”
A side-door strategy, I thought. It even had a name. To an outsider this must, indeed, have seemed like a brilliant approach. I knew better, of course. I would be hard-pressed to call my side-door strategy anything but plain luck. Without the moment of realization between my fiancée and myself I might still be fighting hard to connect with innovation officers through the usual channels — along with hundreds of other authors and thinkers. What had seemed like a brilliant strategy was actually a moment of serendipity.
This realization soon led to another question. What if this was the case everywhere? What if all of the well-planned and well-executed “strategies” people have told us about are really the result of unplanned meetings and encounters, random moments and events, serendipity and plain luck? What if the stories behind companies such as Microsoft or Nokia or Starbucks or the stories behind world-famous authors, index-destroying investors and breakthrough scientists had a lot more to do with randomness than we think? What if success or failure is just one unexpected moment away?
Sure enough, serendipity often is the story. By the end of the ’80s, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer had realized, through rigorous analysis, that Microsoft needed to abandon its still-struggling new operation system, Windows, because of a memory flaw. They partnered up with IBM to develop OS/2, and decimated the Windows team. But a serendipitous, seemingly insignificant, meeting at a party on the Redmond campus between two people, David Weise and Murray Sargent (a non-employee stopping over en route to Germany) led to a teasing joke. That joke suggested a solution to Windows’ problem, and within the hour Weise and Sargent were sitting down to solve the flaw and fundamentally alter Microsoft’s future. Roughly nine months into Google’s existence, Sergei Brin and Larry Page realized they needed to choose between their company and their PhD work at Stanford. They decided to pursue their doctorates, and offered their search engine to Yahoo for $1 million. Yahoo declined (as did others). Lucky thing, that. And in 2004 Paolo Pellegrini, a VP at the investment bank Lazard Freres, was fired — then took on a low-level position at a hedge fund after a lucky phone call. The desperate-to-prove-himself banker found a chart that showed how the housing market was overpriced. His boss, John Paulson, bet large and made $15 billion in a year. “I love that chart,” Paulson would keep saying — but has proved unable to find more of them.
Our mind abhors these serendipitous explanations, and searches for convenient patterns instead. Ask for the keys to career success and you’ll get logical explanations, recommendations, pathways and approaches. Then ask someone how he or she became successful and suddenly it becomes a story of serendipitous encounters, unexpected changes in plans, and random consequences. It does not make sense to ignore this basic fact about success any longer.
We like to think that success comes from predicting trends, analyzing data, gaming out strategies — from using some sort of logical approach. But if it was that simple we should have solved the mystery of success long time ago — and we haven’t. Instead serendipity is what sets us apart — since that is the only way we can discover an approach that is not obvious or logical.
So be open to serendipity, in your organization and in your life. You can take steps to increase the chances of it, too. For instance, bring together people from outside your organization, or between siloed departments or between different countries or cultures. These interactions will help you find unexpected insights and opportunities — those that others might not have logically figured out. Take statistical advantage of these random moments by placing as many purposeful bets you can afford while not becoming distracted. Angry Birds was the game-maker Rovio’s 52nd game. You have probably not heard of their 51 earlier ones. If you tried 52 times at anything you would probably have a decent chance at finding something that helped you stand apart, too!
Your organization, career, even life can change in a single moment. Make sure to seize it.
(Editor’s note: For more on Frans Johansson’s new book, The Click Moment, see “Unleash Your Inner Odysseus” in the October 2012 HBR.)
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