Success Is Random, So Court Serendipity

We cherish chance encounters in our romantic lives—but mostly discount them professionally. "The Click Moment" author Frans Johansson argues that behind every success story is a fortuitous meeting or an unexpected insight.

Howard Schulz walks into a buzzing Milan café and discovers that Starbucks should be about experience rather than beans; Stephanie Meyer dreams of a young couple in an enchanted forest and starts writing Twilight; Aheda Zanetti watches her niece play sports, realizes Muslim women need activewear, and invents the Burquni: These are all the stuff of The Click Moment, Frans Johansson's book about serendipity in business. Fast Company talked with the author about why ROIs are useless, why success is random, and how to court it. This interview has been condensed and edited.

FAST COMPANY: Let's begin with the biggest, broadest, and most tantalizing question: Why is success so seemingly random?

FRANS JOHANSSON: The reason is that the rules of the game—whether you're an artist or a scientist or a startup—are not locked. They can change. And because they can change, we start to have difficulty predicting what's going to work.

That means that whenever I lay out a plan, whenever I analyze how to become successful, when I sort of draw up a strategy, I am very likely to be wrong. And that means that if I reach success, it's not because of what the plan said, it's because of something unexpected.

It's conversation with a person that you didn't expect that was going to provide you with that insight, it's a customer who allows you to understand that you could tap into an entirely new segment: These are the types of things that drive change.

If society has locked the rules, then I believe that success can be predicted, at least to a great extent: Serena Williams is the example for that. Tennis has not changed a lot over the past 50 years, and it's not likely to change a lot over the next 50. You know what you need to be good at it. That's not true when the rules aren't fixed.

That wasn't true for Nokia. They thought they had the rules for the mobile phone down: they thought it was about cool colors and sleek shapes, nice ringtones, and it was for a while. But then the rules of the game changed, and they changed in a completely unpredictable way.

So would you say that prediction is essentially useless?

Prediction is useless in actually trying to drive success, at least in the way that I'm talking about it. Prediction will not set you apart. You might do some prediction to stay in the same place, the fact that I can predict that more people will read [the Click Moment] on the Kindle is useful, but it's not going to set me apart. Prediction is not useful in driving success, because if you could predict with enough certainty to invest in that prediction, then others are able to make that prediction at well.

It's available.

And all of a sudden it evaporates. The iPad came out; everybody knew, "well, tablets are back." And within 18 months, you had over a 100 different types of tablets on the market. That prediction didn't help anybody.

So if prediction isn't useful for going toward success, and randomness is the governing force in our lives, then we have to court randomness.

We accept that in particular areas of our lives. When it comes to finding the person that you want to spend the rest of your life with, we even cherish serendipity in those situations, one of our most important decisions. But when it comes to our professional lives, when it comes to our career or developing a strategy for a business, we think we can circumvent this notion of randomness by analyzing or strategizing, and that's a mistake.

If you scratch underneath the glossy exterior of success stories, you're actually going to find that behind those things you're going to find an unexpected meeting, a surprising insight, and that's what's behind most success. It follows then that we should court those types of things, we should try to get unexpected meetings, we should try to find unexpected insights, and we should be relentless in doubling down on those times when that type of approach yields benefits.

And a "click moment"—this feeling of a serendipitous epiphany that reorients a career or a company—is one of those?

In the Starbucks case, for instance, you have a company that sells coffee by the pound and homebrewing equipment, right? So we have Howard Schulz, and he goes to Milan, and he goes to a home-equipment conference and when he does that he stops by and he sees an espresso bar. And he sees something interesting there. A lot of people are drinking espressos, café lattes, stuff like that, and he spends some time in that environment, and he realizes that Starbucks got it all wrong—it's not about the beans themselves, it's about this communal experience of drinking coffee, and this is what Starbucks should be all about.

He did that because he took his eyes off the ball, in order to find the click moment. If you traveled to Milan and you're simply focused on homebrewing equipment, you're not allowing a random insight to take place.

And the second method you mention, the practice of making many small, purposeful bets, sounds a lot like startup orthodoxy.

Purposeful bets and iteration have been talked about in startups for a while, and it really works for large companies as well. When my firm engages with corporations around the world, that's exactly how we approach it: You need to create a number of different bets, and then you need to iterate a number of bets until it doesn't work or it takes off.

There's one underlying reason for this: If we could predict what would work, we would never ever do anything that doesn't work. If success is random, it follows that you need to roll the dice frequently.

The more bets you make, the more chances you have for something to catch on. So how does that connect to what you say about passion?

You know that you have to try and failing's a part of it, and in fact it's becoming ever more important because of the speed of change. Your company may be gone; you're going to have to adjust to that. But here's the thing: That sucks.

So what is going to give you the wherewithal to stick through and try many times? It has to be something other than an ROI analysis. The founders at Google had created Google for nine months and tried to sell it to Yahoo! for a million dollars. And Yahoo! ran an ROI and came to the conclusion (that) it's not worth it. And then Newscorp buys Myspace for almost 600 million dollars and a couple years later offloads it for 35 million. How did their ROI analysis work out?

So the question is, what can you apply? What is the metric to use? It's passion. Passion helps you figure out how many bites of the apple you're willing to take. In a world where success is random, you have to place many bets, or else you'll never make it.

Increasingly, you're going to find that successful companies are able to tap into that passion.

Follow Drake on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user David]

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7 Comments

  • DeniseCorc

    I was disappointed to read  both the excerpt of this book and that Fast Company put the book on its best books of 2012.  Success is neither completely random nor completely predictable.  However it does follow the laws of probability -- which means it has BOTH elements of randomness AND elements of predictability -- in many dimensions.

    For example, an element of predictability is a person's history and track record of success.  Neuroscience has studied the brains of highly successful people vs. average/poor achievers.  The brains are clearly different.  The frontal lobes (where higher functioning of the brain for decision making, planning, imagination, etc.) are larger.  So highly successful people have a higher probability of success because of their brain structure differences.

     Memories of success vs failures and our interpretations of those experiences also play a huge part in our rate of success in the future.  highly successful people don't personalize failure but rather see failure as a "tool" for learning.  So they are not afraid of failing again.  Others personalize failure.  ie., they believe "they ARE failures," not just had a failure.

    Another aspect that has both elements of randomness and predictability is timing.  While we can't predict unusual circumstances -- like disasters, with enough history we can spot trends or repeated patterns and the factors that impact them.  

    I much prefer the book Strategic Intuition that also addresses the Apples, Googles and IBMs of the world and why they hit the jackpot.  Bill Gates was not smarter than anyone else, nor was he luckier.  As Oprah defines luck as "preparation intersecting with opportunity,"  Gates was more prepared (ie, he worked day and night and would not give up) and he spotted the opportunity/timing, because he understood trends, where they were going into the future and how they would intersect.  Such is the way of Strategic Intuition.

    Denise Corcoran
    The Empowered Business (tm)

  • Designinfonaut

    This kind of serendipitous thinking and approach to discovery is what separates creative people (designers, entrepreneurs, innovators, etc.) from all the rest (bean counters, executives, bankers, etc.). It is also the hardest thing for creative people to show those that just do not get it at all.
    It is almost a different way of seeing the world and, either you got it (Steve Jobs, Edison, etc.) or you don’t (most people in leadership positions).

  • Kosta Bolgov

    Drake - thanks for the great article. The message to embrace randomness and serendipitous opportunities is perfect. 

    Just a thought here... I think that prediction CAN aid driving success (vs. ensure). It is true that no one can predict with 100% certainty, but you can predict with, say, 40% or 60% certainty. Some do it better than others. When the startups and big companies make bets, they don't just roll the dice. Hopefully, they choose those bets with a higher probability of success, which is a prediction that can aid the success of the company itself.

    To quote Putin: "...the prediction that you can't predict anything is already a prediction. That is why I discourage everyone from thinking that we are completely helpless." 

    Your prediction that the rules change is already useful in driving success.
    Kind regards,Kosta Bolgov

  • VS

    great article. It is one thing to be lucky to encounter (or even actively court) that 'click moment',  the real genius may be in actually recognizing it and then acting on it :)

  • Bruce

    Valuable perspective to offer my career coaching clients. They are a one-person business start up and must make many small bets in a job market of many changing rules. See Business Model You by Tim Clark as a nice compliment to this idea.