How to be lucky in business

There are two kinds of luck. The luck that happens to you, over which you have no control, and the luck you can make yourself. Management consultant Douglas Miller has these tips on the latter.

by Douglas Miller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Recruit first for energy
Whether you're an intrapreneur or entrepreneur you'll know that you get results through people not despite them.  Although your own personal style makes a huge difference, the people around you will be the prime success/failure differential. 

The majority of jobs sit beneath the intellectual capacity of most people doing them and yet we recruit on the basis of a ridiculous process of academic inflation (the job that once needed an ‘A’ level or two now needs a degree) and the straitjacket of competency matrices. 

This is not a cry for incompetence but we do seem to prioritise the very unexciting. How many of you reading this feel any emotional fluttering at the word ‘competence’? You probably, like me, find the word rather dull.  

So here’s the first idea – why not make it a number one priority to recruit for energy and enthusiasm? You don’t need a raft of interviewing skills to test for this. You can tell in about three seconds if you’ve got an energetic person sat in front of you or not. Once you’ve established you’ve got some energy on your hands then you can see if they can do the job or not – or, if they can be trained to do it. 

So, if HR do the candidate screening tell them you don’t want to see anyone who hasn’t got a bit of zip about them. Creativity writer Mark Brown talks of the danger of employing what he calls the ‘psychologically retired’ walking around with ‘tombstones in their eyes’. Most of them can comfortably keep afloat in the shallower end of mere competence. Be warned.

Psychological judo
Get out the ideas mat and have a grapple. Almost every business thinker out there is saying that alongside collaboration, creativity is the 21st century business battleground. But so much thinking around creativity emphasises harmony (the perfect ‘brainstorming’ session) and while good relationships are certainly important, creative, competitive tension is a very healthy way to stimulate idea generation in any organisation. 

There has to be unity of purpose and a separation of personality from task (the Lennon-McCartney approach to creative insight where the purpose transcends the personalities involved) but within those caveats bringing together your most open minds for a spot of competitive psychological judo will bring ideas, perspectives and insights that may never have been revealed otherwise.  

You’re going to fail…
…But without failure success is not an option.  So you need to learn how to fail successfully.  All great business leaders will tell you about the failures if you ask them.  Older readers will remember Sir Clive Sinclair’s ‘C5’ – pilloried by journalists who conveniently ignored his glorious successes like the first slim-line pocket calculator and the ZX Spectrum home computer. Industrial designer James Dyson has talked of the 5216 prototypes that failed for the bag-less vacuum cleaner before he and his team got it right. 

These stories are probably familiar territory for those who study the history of business success but I want to suggest, with a bit of inverse logic, that you should actively seek to increase your failure rate and measure the amount of failures you have while you do it.  It’s the best way to increase your success rate and as someone once said: ‘if you’re not failing you’re not trying anything’.  

The missing 5%
When you’re in an airport, waiting for a flight, and you decide you need something to eat it makes a change to hear the words ‘what time is your flight?’ from the waiter or waitress before asking for your order.  If you were employing window-cleaners to clean the windows of a children’s hospital wouldn’t it be great if they did it in spider-man outfits?  You may have come across the terrific story that went viral on Facebook of a child (aged 3) writing to Sainsbury’s about what was then called ‘Tiger Bread’ and suggesting they change the name and the imaginative response of Chris King, the customer manager (aged 27 1/3). What these three real examples have in common is that they turn the routine into the pleasurable. 

Most of us can do the 95% bit (‘the routine’) with ease.  It’s the attention to detail – in the case of these three examples a true ‘climbing into the customer’s world’ mindset (even when writing to a 3-year old) that breeds a new level of insight.  The luckiest in business push themselves that little bit further and tease out the extra 5% that turns ‘just about good enough’ into truly great and as we see with these examples that it can be the smallest thing.

Frankly many organisations (that’s my safety net word when actually I should be using the word ‘people’) can’t be bothered with the last bit because you can get away with the 95% for a long time.  Until someone comes along who pushes for that extra bit of detail that makes all the difference and renders the ‘water-treaders’ obsolete.

P.S. – There are some who operate at only 5%. On a recent flight with a well-known low-cost airline I was amazed to hear the flight attendant call out ‘does anyone want to buy any over-priced snacks or drinks?’ as he hauled the trolley down the aisle. No-one did. He probably didn’t really think that someone on that plane would be telling 100,000 people like I am now.

And finally ‘you’
Successful business people don’t work hard. They work very, very hard. I think we all get that bit. But the willingness to do this should come from a primary source - that you are doing exactly what is right for you and the kind of person you are i.e. that you feel total affinity with your role. 

Working very hard but with little emotional affinity for that work can bring short term financial reward but also brings with it serious ‘soul’ damage if you do it for too long. It kills some people. But that truly ‘tuned-in’ feeling that comes from affinity helps you to see opportunity where others don’t; to give the extra 5% where others can’t (see above) and to bring that bit of ‘zip’ to the job where others won’t.

Connected to affinity, and my final point, is the balance between ‘head’ and ‘heart’ that’s important in your role as manager or entrepreneur.  The ‘head’ gives you clear, rational thinking in areas like the assessment of risk (and never was that more important).  Your ‘heart’ provides the emotional propulsion to drive ideas from the imagination into action, to tune into that most underrated of business skills - your ‘intuition’ - better and perhaps, most important of all, to inspire others.  And to turn back to the beginning of this article, it’s through ‘others’ that you get luckier and deliver great results.  

Douglas Miller is a writer, speaker and consulting trainer.  His new book ‘The Luck Habit: What the Luckiest People Think, Know and Do and How it Can Change Your Life’ has just been published by Pearson Education.

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