Last month, we told you about the upcoming book from our co-founders Thor Muller and Lane Becker, Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business. We snagged an exclusive first-look at what is sure to be the hot business bestseller this spring: (available for pre-order now)
It was the fall of 2005, the last day of the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. Sergey Brin, the 32-year-old cofounder of Google, was making a surprise on-stage appearance with John Battelle, the conference host.
The audience quickly fell silent as Brin sat down. What would he say? What secrets would he reveal? What would he explain to the audience that would help them emulate or understand his unbelievable achievement?
Battelle’s first question cut straight to the heart of the matter: “What,” he asked Brin, “do you attribute Google’s incredible success to?”
Brin responded confidently, as if this was just a run-of-the-mill engineering question. “The number one factor that contributed to our success was luck.”
Silence from the audience. Was that really his answer? Could that possibly be true? He and Page had just blindly stumbled into their fortune? That didn’t make any sense. Surely it must have been their superior intellect, their foresight, their dedication and perseverance that led to their success.
Realizing that his answer begged for an explanation, Brin continued: “We followed our hearts in terms of research areas, and eventually found we had something pretty useful, and wanted to make an impact with it.”
This was a strange kind of luck. He wasn’t talking about random interventions or being at the right place at the right time. No, he was talking about motivation, instinct, accidental discoveries, and passion. How was this luck?
If anybody in the audience was disappointed by that answer, they shouldn’t have been. Brin was not just being humble. He was sharing a crucial insight: that for something to succeed with the kind of scale and speed that Google did, it requires more to happen than any one person, or even a team of people, can ever fully take responsibility for. This insight was central to how Google’s founding team built the company.
By crediting his fortunes (and his fortune) to good luck, Brin wasn’t abdicating responsibility for his success. He was acknowledging the creative tension between his personal goals and a world utterly out of his control. Miraculously, Google seemed to have turned this tension into an actual business practice. A practice that changed the world.
Good Luck is Hard Work
Let’s be honest, though: for most of us harnessing luck sounds as bizarre as strategy planning with Tarot cards and palm reading. Yet what we’ve found is that the ability to harness the unexpected is not just an actual practice; it is rather the essential practice for building a business in a time of accelerating, vertigo-inducing change. Making ventures work in a world as interconnected, complex, and unpredictable as ours requires engaging with the full scope of that complexity even though we can’t see, model, or even imagine all that much of it. No matter how smart we are, or how big our idea, the world is always bigger. No matter how many of the possibilities we can see, there will always be factors outside our sight and beyond our control.
Many of us live with a daily background terror. We see industries failing, jobs disappearing, populations shifting, governments falling, currencies collapsing. This can’t help but sow confusion and self-doubt, and the idea of putting our fate in the hands of chance may seem like the worst idea for calming jittery nerves and setting ourselves up for success.
The good news is that what worked for the Google founders—that combination of hard work, personal vision, and unplanned good fortune—can work for you, too. Luck, it turns out, doesn’t just happen by chance. Rather, the best kind of luck—serendipity, the art of making an unsought finding—is the luck that we attract to ourselves. Because even if we can’t predict it, we can court it and prepare for it, so that we know what to do with it when it shows up. And when it does, with the help of our new book, Get Lucky, you will know what to do.
Much of our insight came to us courtesy of the online service we founded with two other partners in 2007, Get Satisfaction, which has helped almost sixty five thousand organizations increase the role of happy accidents and unplanned information in their everyday operations. From a simple idea—getting people inside and outside of an organization to talk to each other like human beings—organizations today are letting go of much of the control they have traditionally hoarded in order to gain the huge benefits that can arise through chance interactions with their customers. Our goal in founding Get Satisfaction was precisely to help organizations make the transition into a new business environment filled with less certainty but more opportunity.
Bringing Lucky Back
What we’ve found is that small company or large, it doesn’t matter: there is a set of discrete skills you can develop to re-introduce serendipity into your work life.
We call our approach “planned serendipity.” It’s a set of concrete, attainable business skills that cultivate the conditions for chance encounters to generate new opportunities. Planned serendipity also provides you with the ability to recognize and put these opportunities to good use by showing you how to create and maintain the kinds of work environments, cultural attitudes, and business relationships that value and reward serendipitous occurrences.
Taken literally, planned serendipity is a contradiction, of course. It is impossible to plan something that, by definition, is unplannable. Yet organizations are planning machines. The only way for them to embrace the unexpected is to find a space for it within these plans. Our approach opens up a middle path, so that we no longer have to choose between lame predictability and chaos.
Planned serendipity gives you and your business a way to actively, methodically engage the unknown.
To explain how planned serendipity works, we need to start with our own simple definition of serendipity: serendipity is chance interacting with creativity.
Here’s what it means: although we all recognize that chance is, by definition, inherently unpredictable, our actions—which embody our creativity, our ability to create something new and valuable that didn’t exist before—can have a massive impact on what’s possible. Chance is highly sensitive to the actions we take.
In our book, and in the excerpts we’ll be presenting on this blog over the coming weeks, we’ll introduce you to eight such skills, each of which represents a different facet of how luck works. Each skill will contribute to making your life luckier, and taken together they bring new meaning to the phrase ”You lucky bastard.”
- Motion: To shake things up, break out of your routine, find consistent ways to meet new people and run into new ideas.
- Preparation: To link together seemingly unconnected events, information, and people.
- Divergence: To recognize and explore alternative paths spurred by chance encounters, some of which may challenge our current thinking.
- Commitment: To choose, from among the ever-widening set of options in front of us, the right ones to focus on.
- Activation: To develop new constraints that release people from their rote behaviors.
- Connection: To optimize the number and quality of connections with others.
- Permeability: To replace the organization’s rigid walls with something more like semi-permeable membrane.
- Attraction: To project their purpose out into the world in a way guaranteed to draw the best and most valuable events
If we want to succeed in today’s frantically paced business environment, none of us has any choice but to face up to the uncertainties that lurk around every corner. And while we stand on the shoulders of giants in our endeavor to unlock the mechanics of chance—renowned businessmen, philosophers, scientists, inventors, and artists all make appearances on the pages of our book—it is more than anything a product of the hyper-accelerated Internet-era marketplace that surrounds us. In a world that changes as quickly as ours now does, where the pace of this change only seems to increase and where so much of what we need is as unknown and unpredictable as it is critical to our success, luck is the best ally we have.