Global Crisis/Innovation Blog 

 Can You Spot Luck When You See It?  On Jim Collins’ “Great By Choice” 

By Shlomo Maital  

  A short passage in one of Jim Collins’ books (can’t recall if it was in Built to Last, or Good to Great…) changed my life. In it Collins recounted advice he got, as a young lecturer at Stanford Business School,  from an experienced Stanford management professor.  “Don’t worry so much about your delivery and style,” he was told. “Make sure you have good content.”  In this age of ‘pitch’, ‘marketing’, ‘spin’ and ‘theatre’, many of us educators forget that in the end what matters is the solidity and validity of the material we teach.  Collins took heed.  His books are based on exhaustive research on thousands of companies, distilling it down into insights for, say, the 11 companies whose performance exceeds the rest by an order of magnitude (Good to Great).  I tried hard, from that time, to ensure what I taught was solid and based on textbooks that I wrote myself. 

  In his new book with Morten Hansen,  Great by Choice, Collins  and Hansen repeat Good to Great, but this time for entrepreneurs. They ask, why do some entrepreneurs build companies that outperform everyone else by ten times?  They ask, ““why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not?”

    Recently, Collins and Hansen wrote a short piece in the New York Times based on their book, about the following key issue:  How much does luck count for?  How much does it explain?  What they find buttresses Louis Pasteur’s famous saying; “Chance favors the prepared mind”.  Luck is random, by definition.  Those who gain most are those who are ready to spot it, and leverage it, with agility, courage and speed. 

   Here is how, according to Collins, Microsoft was born and over $300 b. in new wealth was created.  In Jan. 1975 Paul Allen spotted an article in Popular Electronics, “World’s First Microcomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models”, about the Altair.  Gates and Allen thought they could convert the programming language Basic into a product that could be used on the Altair.  At Harvard Gates worked on a PDP-10 computer on which he could develop his idea. 

    A lot of luck, right?  Harvard!  PDP-10!  But – ask, how many millions of eyeballs read that very same article?  Why did no-one else think of using Basic?  And how many math and computer whizzes were there at the time, along with Gates, at Stanford, MIT and elsewhere?   And how many of them changed their life, stopped sleeping, “inhaled their food”, defied their parents, dropped out of school, moved to Albuquerque to work with the Altair —  and how many had the speed and urgency to ship Basic for altair, debugged, before anyone else?  Luck, yes. Prepared mind, and dogged hard work – you bet.  And Gates’ driving hard work throughout his career has been greatly undermentioned.  So, by the way, has that of Steve Jobs.  In her eloquent eulogy for her biological brother, Mona Simpson speaks of how hard Steve Jobs worked throughout his life, every single day.  It recalls Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, about the secret of being outstandingly successful: 10,000 hours of practice.    Mitch Kapor, creator of Lotus, was similarly lucky. In a doctor’s office he watched a medical secretary struggling with reams of paper, and used Basic to create the first spreadsheet.  How many people saw the same thing and never acted on it? 

   So, innovator – can you spot luck when you see it?  Is your mind prepared?  Is your BODY prepared, to invest the dogged hard work you need to take a lucky break, insight, or incident, and transform it into a terrific world-class business ten times better than anything else in existence?   Millions of people are super-lucky.  Problem is, they just never realize it.   

  • Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen: Great By Choice: Uncertainty Chaos and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them. Harper Business: Oct. 11 2011.