How does LUCK play into successful INNOVATION?

Luck in Innovation

Here on this St. Patrick’s Day as March Madness is about to begin, I have been thinking about the role of “luck” in the innovation process. Looking back at the history of many major innovations, often the end result was at least somewhat attributed to “luck”. Comments like, “we were lucky we ran that extra experiment”, “fortunately, we launched at the right time” or “we thought we had made a mistake but then something amazing happened” are commonly found in the stories of breakthrough new products. Often there were a variety of successful companies all simultaneously working on the same ideas with teams that, on paper, had the same skills… but one team had an amazing success while all the rest were left with monumental failures. Was it merely a matter of “luck” and good fortune, and if so where does this “luck” come from?

There are several classic stories that reveal some major innovations that happened somewhat serendipitously.

  • Chocolate Chip Cookies: Ruth Graves Wakefield was the owner of the Toll House Inn and famous for her homemade cookies. One day, she ran out of baker’s chocolate so she improvised and tossed in some chunks of semi-sweet chocolate that had been given to her by Andrew Nestle. The chocolate failed to melt in the cookies and the rest, as they say, is history… she ended up with the first batch of chocolate chips and the first ever chocolate chip cookies. The cookies became an instant classic at the inn, and Nestle gave her a lifetime supply of chocolate in exchange for her cookie recipe. Nestle then launched the first Toll House Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels in 1939.
  • Kleenex Facial Tissues: In 1926, the head of Research & Development at Kimberly Clark was a severe hay fever sufferer and was responsible for the company’s Kleenex brand disposable cold cream removal cloths. He began using the cloths as a “disposable handkerchief” and was impressed by the benefit that the product provided. At the same time, researchers at K-C were becoming intrigued by the number of letters they were getting from consumers saying that they were using the product for the same purpose. They ran a quick research study and placed advertisements in a Peoria, Illinois newspaper highlighting the now two possible uses of Kleenex, cold cream removal and disposable handkerchiefs. The results showed that over 60% of responders were using Kleenex for blowing their nose and K-C correspondingly changed how they were advertising the product. By 1930, sales had doubled and Kleenex remains the world’s top facial tissue!
  • Ivory Soap: Ivory Soap had been a key product in driving Procter & Gamble’s early success as a soap and candle company. In early 1878, P&G launched an upgraded product know as “white soap” as an effective and affordable product to delight their consumers. Several months after launch, a researcher responsible for making the soap forgot to turn off a machine when he went off to lunch, and when he came back, the batch of soap was “puffed-up and frothy.” The soap technically still worked as effectively as before and was shipped out into market. Consumers instantly noticed that the soap now floated and began demanding that they wanted more soap with that benefit. When leaders at P&G discovered the source of the anomaly, they decided to take the researcher’s “mistake” , which essentially was extra air in the soap mixture, and to intentionally make it part of the product. This became a key part of their commercialization strategy (“If you can’t fix it, claim it!”) and the floating soap became a key driver of the company’s success.

Is there an element of “luck” in each of these stories? Of course… all of these stories included some form of accidental discovery that brought them to life. That being said, in each example, the key leaders made choices either to enable or to leverage this “luck” to make it successful. Wakefield had to be willing to improvise with her chocolate chips and Nestle also had to invest in this new idea. Kimberly-Clark had to pay attention to the letters from consumers and to choose to reposition a product that had already been successful. P&G could have discarded the batch from the start, fired the researcher, or “fixed” the floating soap rather than leverage it. In each example, someone made a conscious choice to turn mistakes or accidents into a new idea. But for each of these stories, there are millions of examples where an amazing “lucky” occurrence happened and was either ignored or even punished. So what are some principles so that we can be the teams with the horseshoes and rabbits’ feet rather than the ones with black cats and broken mirrors?

(Bear with me on the metaphors… A lot of basketball, pots of gold, and Guinness on the brain…)

1) Hire some gamblers and give them some chips. It is somewhat easy to say that if we want to create more “luck” in our innovation process, that we should hire some successful “gamblers”. Innovative organizations are usually good at hiring risk-takers who have the passion and capability to push the envelope, and who can accept that losing from time-to-time is inherent in taking chances. But when we bring these “gamblers” into our organizations, do we entrust them with “chips”, give them some time, and set them free in our “casinos”… or do we micro-manage their spending, their time, and their bets? It is one thing to hire the gamblers, but if we want them to hit the jackpot, we have to give them the freedom to gamble as they see fit.

2) If you want to make more shots, you need to take more shots. Michael Jordan is arguably the best basketball player ever to take the court and has more than a whole highlight reel of game-winning shots in key moments. However, for every one of these shots he made, he missed several more and actually made far less that 50% of the game-winners that he actually attempted! So did MJ stop shooting? No, of course not- instead of focusing on the shots he missed, he focused on the ones he made… resulting in one of the most successful careers in NBA history. He once was quoted as saying, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”. Amazing innovations do happen… and rarely they may even happen on the first shot. But for truly amazing accomplishments, there are typically a series of failures for every success. Net, the more shots you take, the more you make.

3) Follow the “rainbows” and look for the “pots of gold”. Often the success of new ideas is largely about being in the right place at the right time. That being said, while this may look like “luck” on the surface, often it is a combination of experience (intuitively knowing where the “right place” is), research (knowing the trends, not only of your industry but also of the broader landscape), and insight (combining this experience and research into a new idea). Even more importantly, once you know where the rainbow should be, having the courage to find the rainbow and chase the pot of gold- not knowing what you will actually find (e.g. some crazy, fighting leprachauns!)- is the critical step. How many times do we ignore the “rainbows” in our industries until we learn that a competitor got there first and found the “pot of gold”, because we were too hesitant to be the first to take the risk and chase the uncertain fortune? It is critical to look for and to find the rainbows, but even more critical to have the courage to chase the pot of gold.

4) Expect to win with every bet, and don’t give up with every loss. If you are in a culture that punishes failure and only rewards successes, that values only results but not experimentation, or that demands perfection over striving for amazing… then “luck” often is squeezed out of the equation. If, however, taking risks, challenging paradigms, and accepting (and even encouraging) failure is an accepted part of culture, then individuals will inherently place more bets… and more bets leads to more wins.

5) Take time to walk around the “forest” and don’t focus too early on the “trees”. Often, teams will try to optimize their probability for success by narrowing scope early in the innovation process. On the surface, defining the “box” early may appear to simplify via driving focus and minimizing choices. In reality, closing off degrees of freedom too early often adds limitations and makes work more challenging. In fact, having too intense of a focus on a specific objective is actually prohibitive on bringing in new insights and in finding “lucky” discoveries. Google has a successful concept of “20% Projects” where they allow employees 20% of their time to innovate on ideas outside their day job… and they estimate that 50% of their initiatives come from these projects! If you want to find a “lucky” discovery, you need to spend some time with stimuli and with people outside of the specific objective to bring in fresh ideas and to not lose the forest for the trees.

There will always be an element of luck and serendipity in the innovation process, and that is part of the excitement of the innovation career. The fallacy is, that this luck is entirely out of our control and cannot be influenced or exercised. We can make our own luck by bringing in gamblers, by taking more shots, and by accepting that in taking chances… sometimes we will lose. In the examples above with Nestle, Kimberly Clark, and Procter & Gamble, the “lucky” stories are intriguing, but the truly amazing fact is that each of these companies are still going strong a century later. Clearly they have found a way to have “luck on their sides” in a repeatable and consistent manner.

Enjoy the games over the next week. As March Madness ensues there will certainly be a Cinderella team who makes a stunning buzzer beater to shock the world. When this “Cinderella Story” happens, will it be a lucky shot? Or will it be the right team, in the right place, at the right time… “Changing the game”?


Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on


One comment

  1. Very good post! Enjoyed reading it. I think there is a difference between hiring the ‘gambler’ risk-takers and hiring those that are not afraid to fail. I believe most of the entrepreneurs out there are risk-averse. However, they are willing to put small bets on different things realizing that some of those might fail (but in this case the scale is small, so the loss is not that substantial). Gamblers on the other hand seem like the type that would put large bets the failure of which can ultimately thwart any other ideas they might have.

    A good book with more examples of companies that seemingly just got lucky with innovation is ‘The Click Moment’ – it came out last year. I attended a presentation by the author – Frans Johansson and it was pretty interesting so I bought the Kindle book.


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