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Who Needs Luck? Try Planned Serendipity

This strategy played a huge part in the evolution of some of the world's biggest brands, from 3M to Google. The founders of GetSatisfaction share its secrets.

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This week, I'm thrilled to be able share an interview with Thor Muller and Lane Becker, authors of the New York Times Bestseller Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business. They're also the founders of Get Satisfaction, the company I run. Muller and Becker are the champions of the incredible philosophy of "planned serendipity." It has played a huge part in the evolution of some of today's biggest brands--from 3M to Google--and was one of the founding principles in the development of Get Satisfaction. I recently spoke with Muller and Becker about how other companies can adopt this way of thinking for their businesses. Here's a taste of the great advice they have for people and companies of all sizes.

In Get Lucky, you admit that "luck" can be seen as a four-letter word." How is "planned serendipity" different than luck?
Becker: When we hear the word "luck," we tend to think of the guileless gambler, filled with foolish confidence, racking up big wins at the blackjack table. In reality, we know that although he feels "lucky," his winning streak will inevitably come to an end because the game is rigged in favor of the dealer. This is totally different from our concept of planned serendipity, which is luck that you create for yourself.

Muller: Great companies such as Google and 3M will openly attribute their success to this type of luck, and it doesn't involve any mysticism or praying. It's all about hard work, being motivated, following instincts, being open to accidental discoveries, and, above all else, passion. 

The idea of creating a structure that lends itself to chance is a bit of an oxymoron. Can you give some examples of structures that lend themselves to serendipitous encounters?
Becker: One of the reasons why people are so adverse to the concept of luck is because we're taught to believe that following certain rules is the way to achieve success. Yet time and time again, we see people who follow the same route end up and in totally different places. We'll often hear that one of those people "got lucky" while the other didn't.  If we look more closely, we'll see that what this really means is that one of the people was better at taking advantage of "chance happenings" that occurred throughout their life. Companies like Google have learned to find a creative balance between their goals and a world that is completely unpredictable.

Muller: The lesson is: always keep goals in mind, but at the same time, be ready to process and utilize the experiences you didn't anticipate. Have a structure in place that enables a constant flow of chance encounters. We call this integrating "permeability" into your business.

For companies accustomed to putting up walls dividing managers, employees and customers, this can be hard. What advice do you have for companies looking implement "permeability?"
Becker:
We like to use the metaphor of the hotel lobby. The hotel lobby is a place with lots of comings and going. Different people with different needs have a place to meet, converse, exchange information, and have shared experiences. Guests interact with employees, people leaving meet people who are just arriving, and everyone has the chance to chat with people who are just stopping by. When you create a place where everyone who is connected to your business can interact as though they're in a hotel lobby, you essentially create a place where chance encounters are happening at every minute.

You say that the start-up environment lends itself to planned serendipity, and that as businesses scale, it's harder to be open to chance. More walls go up. What are some practices that companies can implement as they grow to ensure they stay open to possibility?
Muller: 3M is a great example of a big company that planned for serendipity. In fact, we tell the story of the discovery of the Post-it note in Get Lucky. Though many people believe the creation of the Post-it note was an "accident." That couldn't be further from the truth. The Post-it note came to life based on the determination and open-mindedness of many people. Above all, it happened because 3M created a culture where employees felt like they had the space to explore new ideas, reach out to supervisors for support, and take inspiration from the outside world. They took steps to plan for serendipity.  

Planning for serendipity requires activating the "geek brain." Can you talk a bit more about what that is and how people with huge responsibilities--like CEOs--can pause to get in touch with their geek brain, despite the stress of running a company?
We describe the "geek brain" in Get Lucky as the part of the brain that has many interests and lots of curiosity. It's the part that will explore something even if there's no obvious reason for it. Even busy CEOs can nurture the geek brain by having outside interests and making time to actively pursue them.

Becker: For example, Art Fry, at 3M learned about the adhesive technology he used for Post-it notes because he happened to attend a lecture given by the inventor, a scientist. So, for anyone looking to activate their geek brain, take steps to advance your education--in whatever shape that takes. Be alert and be present, even when you're doing non-work related activities. You never know where or when inspiration will strike.

What are some tips for leaders who want to communicate the "get lucky" attitude to their employees?
Leaders need to encourage employees to have outside interests and give them reason to keep learning and be passionate about work. Take Google, which gives employees time to work on unrelated projects while they're at work. That type of freedom always pays off. Beyond that, leaders need to make it clear that new ideas will be heard. That's easy at smaller companies. At larger companies, the message needs to be very clear that employees are encourage to speak up, be creative and offer suggestions. That's when structure comes into place. You might need to create a system or software that makes it easier to communicate. Whatever it takes, make sure that hotel lobby includes your customers, employees and maybe even the random mad scientist who could be harboring the next billion-dollar idea.

Last updated: Jun 12, 2012

WENDY LEA is the CEO of Get Satisfaction, a social business platform that helps companies engage customers through transparent conversations that increase customer satisfaction, product insight, and enhance loyalty.
@WendySLea




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