The Rules of Randomness & How You Can Stand Apart

The world is an unpredictable place. Everyone seems to agree with this statement. We all recognize that unpredictable things happen every day, from a chance conversation to an unexpected meeting; from the rapid rise of an Instagram to the dramatic fall of a Lehman Brothers. We don’t question random forces in our personal lives or the world around us. But what about in our careers or in business? Why don’t we account for unpredictability in these areas?

Let me start with a personal example: In 2004, I was waiting for the publication of my first book, The Medici Effect. I was nervous, hopeful and relieved to finally be done with a three-year obsession—an investigation into how groundbreaking innovation happens at the ‘intersection’ of different industries, cultures and disciplines.  But the timing couldn’t have been worse. Clayton Christensen’s book, Seeing What’s Next, was also coming out the same month, from the same publisher.Soon, I was knocking on the doors of Innovation Officers and strategy leaders at companies to ‘consult’ on innovation and maybe give a talk or two. Turns out, it was a bad plan. Everyone else, some better known than me—including Christensen—were doing the same thing.

One evening, my then-fiancée came home and announced that her boss at JP Morgan had tasked her to find a “business case for diversity.” As we discussed this, it became clear that my book—my ideas about the “Medici Effect”—fit the bill. Within a week, I was presenting to the head of the investment side of JP Morgan Chase.

I share this story because it was the moment when everything “clicked” for me. My entire strategy for a “brilliant career as an innovation though leader” had just been obliterated. Never in all my planning and careful analysis did I ever consider that the answer would lie in the Diversity Office, rather than Innovation. After embracing this possibility, everything changed—so much so, that I finally found the time to focus on finding out whether the success of other individuals and companies all hinged on a similar “click moment” as it did for me.

The answer is simply, yes. From Starbucks to Microsoft Windows to Diane von Furstenburg to Twilight, and its ‘inspired’ Fifty Shades of Grey.

The world is unpredictable, and that means we cannot foresee whether an idea or project will turn out as planned. In fact, the plan may very well become outdated before we even start to execute it. And if we can’t logically plan our way to success, then it must mean that success, when it happens, is a result of something unexpected—of something random. It is a revealing paradox.

The world is unpredictable, and that means we cannot foresee whether an idea or project will turn out as planned.

If Howard Schultz had never taken a stroll down a street in Milan and wandered into a café, Starbucks as we know it would probably never have happened. If Murray Sargent and Dave Weise hadn’t happened to meet at a party on the Microsoft campus one night, the operating system we know as Windows would have been killed off—and most likely the PC revolution would not have happened as quickly, if at all.

Yet, we resist this notion. We want to explain away success as being more than just good fortune or luck. Indeed, very few people I talked to had spent much time thinking deeply about how to incorporate randomness into their corporate or professional strategy. The reason seemed obvious: randomness defines the part of our lives that we can’t control, so how can we rely on it?

Simply put, randomness makes us stand apart. In The Click Moment, I talk about a number of different approaches for using randomness to our advantage. Here are a few of them:

1. Increase the number of click moments in our lives.

This is a lot easier than we think. Most of us, by nature, are creatures of habit. We like the familiar and avoid placing ourselves in uncomfortable positions. In a crowded room, we tend to gravitate toward the people we know, rather than striking up a conversation with a stranger. And we become so immersed in a certain path—or the momentum has driven us so far down it—that we’re unwilling to question or take our eyes off it.

Instead, change up your routine. Go to a different café. Read a magazine you otherwise never would. Talk to someone in the elevator, on the plane, or in the park—and go beyond the weather and your busy schedules. Surround yourself with people who are different from you, be it their backgrounds, their professions, their cultures. Embrace that diversity.

Randomness defines the part of our lives that we can’t control, so how can we rely on it?

2. Reject the obvious path.

If we do what’s logical—take the path that everyone ‘knows’ to do—we will do exactly what someone else is doing, and never stand apart. My friend Marcus Samuelsson, food activist, restaurateur, and chef-owner of Red Rooster, recounted to me how he came to be the guest chef for the White House’s state dinner for the Indian Prime Minister Mammohan Singh.

Every state dinner since 1874 has featured French-American cuisine. The White House invited 15 elite chefs, including Marcus, to present a menu for the dinner. Everyone presented a French-American menu with a meat dish, save Marcus. Knowing Prime Minister Singh is vegetarian, he presented a vegetarian menu inspired by Indian flavors. He was selected as the guest chef, and the White House broke its French-American state dinner tradition.

3. Make lots of bets—but purposefully.

Pablo Picasso made over 50,000 works of art in his lifetime. The Virgin Group has launched over 400 ventures. And Rovio had developed 51 games before it scored one of the bestselling games of all time: Angry Birds. What all these successful individuals and companies had in common is that they placed many, many bets.

With over 1 billion downloads since the release of Angry Birds in 2009, Rovio appeared to have come out of nowhere to dominate gaming. As a result, people believed Rovio to be a so-called “overnight success.” But this was anything but the truth. As you now know, Rovio had developed dozens of games over the last eight years. Prior to Angry Birds, none of those games had been memorable.

While it’s good to have a plan, great innovations are often unpredictable. Ask yourself, how can you make randomness work for you?

What’s Your Take?

Has randomness and unpredictability been a major factor in your success?

More insights on: Innovation, Iteration, Risk-Taking

Frans Johansson

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Frans Johansson is an author, entrepreneur, and public speaker. His debut book, "The Medici Effect," shattered assumptions about how great ideas happen. In his new book, "The Click Moment: Seizing Opportunity in An Unpredictable World," entrepreneurs, innovators, creators, and leaders will find a blueprint for how to harness randomness to their advantage.
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