What’s Luck Got to Do With It?
As I write this, I’m stuck in the Dallas airport after missing a connection, trying to get to New Orleans for the EMS World Expo. On TV, reporter Wolff Blitzer is giving the latest update on the response to Superstorm Sandy, which hit the day before. Scenes of emergency vehicles, flooded streets, submerged amusement parks, downed trees and electrical lines, fires, hospital evacuations and talking heads blend together in a way that seems surreal, although I know the suffering—and heroics—are all too real.
Before the storm hit, there was much speculation about where it would land first—and who would be the unlucky ones. Would it be North Carolina, Maryland or Virginia? Would Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York or New Jersey take the brunt?
This issue of good or bad fortune, and in particular how it might reflect on organizational excellence, resonated with me. Two weeks earlier I had heard leadership guru Jim Collins speak about his latest book, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All.
If you’re a Collins fan, you know he describes himself as an “entrepreneurial professor” who decided more than two decades ago to bring an academic and research perspective to studying leadership. He spends significant time and effort gathering data regarding organizational performance and then does the analysis to discern the unique characteristics that distinguish great leaders and great organizations. In this book, he looks at the attributes of organizations that outperformed their peers during times of great challenge and for the first time tried to analyze an organization’s “ROL,” or return on luck, good and bad.
Collins is not just a good writer but a good speaker, and he uses powerful stories to emphasize his points. In the case of Great by Choice, it’s the race to the South Pole. He recounts the 1911–1912 competition between Britain’s Robert Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen to be the first to reach the last unexplored place on earth.
In some ways the race resembles the fable of the tortoise and the hare, with Amundsen playing the part of the disciplined, determined (and perhaps plodding) leader to Scott’s more energetic, quick and charismatic hero. Amundsen was a planner who fastidiously studied the culture and the ways of the Eskimos to better understand how to withstand the harsh environment he would face. He carried three times the food supply of Scott and determined that sled dogs were the most reliable form of transportation (and also were a potential food source, if necessary). Notably, he set a goal of 20 miles per day, a march he was committed to no matter the conditions.
Scott decided to use ponies, motor sledges and finally dogs for his transportation, and took a longer route that had been the traditional path of previous expeditions. The ponies and motor sledges proved unreliable, and pulling heavy sledges by manpower became increasingly necessary. In the end, Scott’s exhausted crew did make it to the South Pole, only to discover that Amundsen’s team had arrived 33 days earlier.
Amundsen’s expedition made it back, but Scott’s never returned. Their bodies, along with photographs and Scott’s journal, were discovered eight months later by a search party. Scott’s plans had gone terribly wrong, and while at the time he was considered heroic and unlucky in death, it’s now recognized, says Collins, that he was ill-prepared for his journey.
Collins asked people in the audience to consider their equivalent of the 20-mile march. What long-term vision is enabled by dogged persistence in good times and bad? In the big picture, he says, the signature of mediocrity is inconsistency in the pursuit of your goals.
A luck event is defined by Collins as something you didn’t cause, something that has consequence and couldn’t be anticipated. Great organizations—or explorers—don’t let luck define their legacies. They take full advantage of good luck, and are prepared when bad luck inevitably strikes, using these events to be transformative.