Get Lucky: Putting Serendipity to Work in Business

Morgan O'Rourke


June 1, 2012

As business strategies go, relying on luck is not the most dependable route to success. But as many successful companies would attest, sometimes luck, more than skill or hard work, is the missing ingredient that separates a struggling start-up from its Fortune 500 counterparts.

Luck is how 3M was able to stumble upon the invention of Post-Its and turn it into a $100 million-a-year business, and, according to Google founder Sergei Brin, luck is the main reason why his company has found such success where others have not. But unfortunately, luck is random. It can't be harnessed in a business plan. Or can it?

According to Get Lucky authors Thor Muller and Lane Becker, there are ways to turn luck from an unpredictable force of nature into a tool for business success. It is all about utilizing what they call "planned serendipity." By developing eight specific skills, companies can set the stage so that they are better able to take advantage of lucky opportunities when they present themselves. In other words, companies like 3M and Google aren't just lucky, they prepare themselves to be lucky.

For instance, one of the skills the authors cite, the concept of "motion," is exemplified by the open floor plan at a company like Pixar, which allows disparate groups to connect and share ideas, spontaneously creating a fertile ground for new, unplanned and serendipitous thoughts to emerge. Another skill, termed "permeability," or the ability to allow information to pass freely from customers outside the company to employees inside, is why messenger bag maker Timbuk2 was able to develop a diaper bag kit after customers expressed a desire for it.

And the ability to be divergent is why bookseller Barnes & Noble has been able to remain successful in the digital age while rival Borders was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Chasing serendipity is a counterintuitive proposition for risk managers tasked with reducing uncertainty in their companies. But as we all know, risk can also have an upside. And as the companies profiled in this book demonstrate, embracing this upside can make all the difference between well-intentioned failure and lasting success.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)