The importance of deliberate mistakes and planned serendipity to innovation

Two recently published books, Paul Schoemaker’s Brilliant Mistakes: Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure and Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business co-authored by Thor Muller and Lane Becker, have much of value to say about innovation but approach that subject with quite different perspectives.

According to Schoemaker, “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” He advocates making what he characterizes as “deliberate mistakes” but they should not be viewed as “failures.” Rather, as planned experiments by which to create valuable learning opportunities.

Note the reference to “far side” in the book’s subtitle. Perhaps Schoemaker has Oliver Wendell Holmes’s observation in mind when referring to simplicity on “the other side of complexity.” Yes, Schoemaker uses the word “failure” in the book’s subtitle but only in reference to learning nothing of value from a planned experiment.

According to Muller and Becker, “planned serendipity” involves “a set of concrete, attainable business skills that cultivate the conditions for chance encounters to generate new opportunities. Planned serendipity also provides you with the ability to recognize and put these opportunities to good use by showing you how to create and maintain the kinds of work environments, cultural attitudes, and business relationships that value and reward serendipitous occurrences.” Planned serendipity cannot guarantee success (however defined) but it can improve substantially the chances for success.

Thomas Jefferson once observed, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” However, what many people view as “luck” is, in fact, the result of a great deal of hard work – best viewed as preparation – that reaches an intersection with opportunity. Many (most?) of the so-called “overnight sensations” in the entertainment world, for example, spent sometimes decades in obscurity before taking full advantage of a breakthrough opportunity. The “10,000-Hour Theory” is hardly a theory, having been indisputably verified hundreds of thousands of hours of rigorous research, including the efforts of K. Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University.

Brilliant Mistakes and Get Lucky are two of the most important books (not just business books) published in recent years.

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