In 1978, Dr. James Austin published an odd book called Chase, Chance, & Creativity: The Lucky Art of Novelty. The book was all about making scientific sense of... luck. This is a specially interesting endeavor for startups or corporations as luck is probably the essential asset for anyone in the business of innovating anything.
What is really interesting, though, is that in this book, he nuanced the notion of luck into four types that build a palette of ways to generate "luck":
- Blind Variation is the type of luck that refers to the random and spontaneous generation of diverse and novel ideas. It involves exploring different possibilities without any specific goal or direction, often leading to unexpected and innovative results. Blind variation is a crucial component of creative thinking, allowing the mind to explore uncharted territories and expand what is defined as "possible" for innovators. As such, it is an indispensable sunk cost for large corporations, whereas startups can't afford the luxury.
- The now-famous Serendipity is the occurrence of valuable and unexpected discoveries or insights while actively seeking something else. It involves stumbling upon valuable information or making a significant connection by chance during the pursuit of a different objective. Serendipity often plays a significant role in scientific breakthroughs and artistic inspiration but is mostly useless (my words) for innovation. At best, it gives a fallback plan or, as startups would say, a pivot strategy.
- Contingency luck relates to the influence of external events or circumstances that may positively impact the creative process. It involves being in the right place at the right time or encountering favorable conditions that enhance the likelihood of generating creative ideas. This one is mostly the one innovators need the most. It's all about timing and deeply understanding that taking risks and dealing with uncertainties will also create positive outcomes.
- Lastly, Creativity Chains refer to the chain of thought that arises when one idea triggers another, leading to a sequence of innovative concepts. These chains of associations can be ignited by seemingly unrelated stimuli, and they contribute to the development of new and original ideas. It's also a center-stage process of early-stage innovators before they decide to get to market and as such is mostly interesting for the pre-business phase of innovation.
When talking innovation we often lack nuances and throw a few vague concepts together in indiscriminate bundles. As someone who spent a lot of time thinking about this for the better of the last fifteen years, and that is trying to formulate ways to get the job done for others, this lack of nuance is certainly what I fear the most.
But when you get some of the nuances right, a veil is removed and some degree of a method to madness takes form. For instance, investing in luck can become something beyond a weak-sauce buzzy injunction.
Even KPIs can be applied to luck. What is for instance the percentage of connections you have on LinkedIn outside your core domain of expertise? Your market's region? Do you go once a year to a conference or a trade show on an adjacent domain to yours? How many backup scenarios do you have on a man project? Do you integrate optionality as a key measurement of your innovation portfolio's efficiency? Etc.
Does luck remain uncontrollable? Yes.
But the initial conditions of many of its forms always lie within our grasp.