Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Success and Serendipity

Anything could happen.

Anything could happen.

Carl von Clausewitz, the renowned German military strategist, wrote that “No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy.” It’s good to plan, organize, and coordinate but remember that the enemy will always do something unexpected. Resilience – the ability to react to new realities and change direction as needed – is probably the single most important variable in battlefield success.

Clausewitz, of course, was focused on war planning. At the risk of being presumptuous, I’d like to paraphrase the thought: No business plan survives first contact with reality. As in warfare, it’s good to plan ahead. But don’t stick to the plan blindly. Be observant and pragmatic. As you learn more about reality, adjust the plan accordingly and do it quickly.

We all like to make predictions, of course, but reality intervenes. Odd things happen. Weird coincidences occur. As we learned a few weeks ago, we all confabulate. We make up stories to explain what happened in the past. By understanding the past, we should be able to control the future.

Unfortunately, the stories we confabulate about the past are never completely true. Too many things happen serendipitously. We may think that X caused Y but reality is much more complicated and counter-intuitive. Another German, Georg W.F. Hegel probably said it best: “History teaches us nothing except that it teaches us nothing.”

If we can’t predict the future, why bother to write a business plan at all? Because it’s useful to lay out all the variables, understand how they inter-relate, and tell a story about the future. Once you have a story, you can adjust it. You can tell how closely your thinking relates to reality and change your plans accordingly. It’s like tailoring a new set of clothes. Following a pattern will get you close to a good fit. But you’ll need several fittings – a nip here, a tuck there – to make the ensemble fit perfectly.

This approach to planning also emphasizes the importance of serendipity. My favorite definition of serendipity is “…an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.” If you could predict the future accurately, you wouldn’t need serendipity – you would simply follow the plan. Since you can’t predict the future, you need to promote serendipity as part of your plan.

How do you promote serendipity? The simple answer is that you do new things. Talk to different people. Take a different route to work. Study a new language. Travel to a new country. Take a course in a new discipline. Don’t ever assume that you know what you’re doing. Remember what Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Never let an accident go to waste.

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