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Harnessing serendipity

Lane Becker and Thor Muller have a new book out about the importance of harnessing serendipity — making your own luck. Becker explains why startups are better positioned to do so than established businesses in an interview with the New York Times’ Nick Bilton:

It’s a problem for start-ups as they grow and become a traditional business, because most businesses succeed through repetition, process and routine. But all of those things are designed for rote predictability. So we engineer our businesses to squash the role of serendipity inside their organizations. Even start-ups, when they get big, and they stop listening to your users, fall into a process of repetition.

I was struck by this explanation because today I also read Michael Abrash’s blog post on what it’s like to work at the game company Valve. It sounds like Valve is structured to cultivate serendipity in exactly the way Becker describes:

If most of the value is now in the initial creative act, there’s little benefit to traditional hierarchical organization that’s designed to deliver the same thing over and over, making only incremental changes over time. What matters is being first and bootstrapping your product into a positive feedback spiral with a constant stream of creative innovation. Hierarchical management doesn’t help with that, because it bottlenecks innovation through the people at the top of the hierarchy, and there’s no reason to expect that those people would be particularly creative about coming up with new products that are dramatically different from existing ones – quite the opposite, in fact. So Valve was designed as a company that would attract the sort of people capable of taking the initial creative step, leave them free to do creative work, and make them want to stay. Consequently, Valve has no formal management or hierarchy at all.

It’s brilliant when it works. I think that Becker is wrong, though, when he says that repetition, process, and routine are the enemies of serendipity. Building the wrong kinds of structures and processes have been responsible for crushing serendipity in many organizations, but the right kinds of processes (or if you prefer, habits) are necessary parts of maintaining the possibility for serendipity as a company grows.

For example, from an engineering standpoint, Etsy’s core practice is continuous deployment. Regardless of whatever else is going on, developers are always testing code, checking it in, and pushing it to production, many, many times a day. It’s that process that enables the company to continue to rapidly iterate even though the engineering team is growing. The process for pushing code is rigid and everyone follows it every single time they need to deploy something. It’s that process, though, that liberates people to be creative as individuals.

I’d be willing to bet that Valve has any number of processes or ingrained habits that serve the same purpose. People there obviously understand how to form teams without being told what to do. They have a common understanding of how Valve writes software that enables them to contribute to any project that the company is working on. Valve creates software that ships in big monolithic releases — engineers there clearly understand what’s expected at each phase of the project so that they can ship.

Of course, I’m responding to one short paragraph from the interview — I haven’t read the book. I think, though, that from a distance people look at creative companies like Valve or GitHub (which I plan on writing about some other time) and think mostly about the liberties people are allowed to take. My guess is that in large part, their success derives from the adherence to norms that are deeply embedded in the cultures of those organizations. Because the team members voluntarily adhere to those norms, they don’t stifle individual creativity.

If this sort of thing interests you, check out the book — Get Lucky.

4 Comments

  1. Hi. Interesting perspective, good to see recognition of the value of sane processes. Reminds me of http://www.azarask.in/blog/post/iterative_design_isnt_design_by/ by Aza Raskin, explaining how process can be at the very core of some innovations.

    Thanks for sharing!

    By the way, Missing word: I think? that Becker is wrong Missing href to Get Lucky.

  2. Hey Rafe! Thanks much for the follow-up. For what it’s worth, I’m not wrong! Or rather, you’re right—it is hard to convey the whole truth in a short response during an interview. Short version is, we agree with you—the right kind of planning is critical to making serendipity work, figuring out how to make changes to your process part of your process, as the agile kids say. Or plan for the unplannable, as we put it in the book.

    Just in case you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, here’s the relevant excerpt from the intro:

    “Planned serendipity serves just this purpose for us. Taken literally, it is a contradiction, of course. It is impossible to plan something that, by definition, is unplannable. Yet organizations are planning machines. The only way for them to embrace the unexpected is to find a space for it within these plans. In the chapters that follow we’ll see how this seeming paradox opens up a middle path, so that we no longer have to choose between lame predictability and chaos. Planned serendipity gives you and your business a way to actively, methodically engage the unknown.”

  3. don’t leave Automattic out of the cadre of companies with this super-magic contrarian ideas about company culture.

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