Why luck sometimes beats hard work

EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT BUSINESS IS WRONG: It's not keeping your nose to the grindstone that matters. Sometimes randomness or chance is the reason why we succeed.

by Alastair Dryburgh
Last Updated: 30 Aug 2016

Going the extra mile. Giving 110%. Pulling an all-nighter. Whatever your cliché of choice, it's axiomatic in today's hyper-competitive business world that success means keeping your nose to the grindstone and being ready for every eventuality. Slackers never win the race.

It sounds good, but is it true? Not really. Firstly, however hard you work and however carefully you prepare, you simply cannot account for every possible event that might come to pass. Real life is not like that - as they say in the army, even the best plans don't survive the first contact with the enemy.

Secondly, it doesn't allow for what mathematicians call randomness - blind chance, or luck if you prefer. The things you can't discover any other way because until you find them you have no idea what you are looking for, like penicillin and the Post-it note.

Even ants appreciate this - when foraging, most of the ants in a colony diligently follow pheromone trails laid by their fellow creatures, leading to established sources of nourishment. But a few of them always wander around at random, because that's the best way of locating new resources and maintaining a constant food supply.

Despite the fact ants, unlike humans, have almost no brain at all, we can learn from them all the same. Because they show us that when the complexity of your environment outstrips your intellectual capacity to analyse it, progress increasingly depends on random behaviour.

The problem is that in a world obsessed with hard graft and unfailing focus on the task in hand, randomness, even when rebranded as 'serendipity', gets stigmatised as slacking and inefficiency.

This needs to change, because the business environment is clearly getting more unpredictable by the day. The times when we could rely on the past as a reasonably good proxy for what things would be like in the future are well and truly gone: we need more randomness not less. Because it's in those apparently unproductive moments that the future is created.

Alastair Dryburgh is chief contrarian at Akenhurst Consultants. Visit alastairdryburgh.com


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