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Big Ideas

The Rules of Randomness & How You Can Stand Apart

We don't question random forces in our personal lives or the world around us. But what about in our careers or in business? Why don't we account for unpredictability in these areas?

The world is an unpredictable place. Everyone seems to agree with this statement. We all recognize that unpredictable things happen every day, from a chance conversation to an unexpected meeting; from the rapid rise of an Instagram to the dramatic fall of a Lehman Brothers. We don’t question random forces in our personal lives or the world around us. But what about in our careers or in business? Why don’t we account for unpredictability in these areas?

Let me start with a personal example: In 2004, I was waiting for the publication of my first book, The Medici Effect. I was nervous, hopeful and relieved to finally be done with a three-year obsession—an investigation into how groundbreaking innovation happens at the ‘intersection’ of different industries, cultures and disciplines.  But the timing couldn’t have been worse. Clayton Christensen’s book, Seeing What’s Next, was also coming out the same month, from the same publisher.Soon, I was knocking on the doors of Innovation Officers and strategy leaders at companies to ‘consult’ on innovation and maybe give a talk or two. Turns out, it was a bad plan. Everyone else, some better known than me—including Christensen—were doing the same thing.

One evening, my then-fiancée came home and announced that her boss at JP Morgan had tasked her to find a “business case for diversity.” As we discussed this, it became clear that my book—my ideas about the “Medici Effect”—fit the bill. Within a week, I was presenting to the head of the investment side of JP Morgan Chase.

I share this story because it was the moment when everything “clicked” for me. My entire strategy for a “brilliant career as an innovation though leader” had just been obliterated. Never in all my planning and careful analysis did I ever consider that the answer would lie in the Diversity Office, rather than Innovation. After embracing this possibility, everything changed—so much so, that I finally found the time to focus on finding out whether the success of other individuals and companies all hinged on a similar “click moment” as it did for me.

The answer is simply, yes. From Starbucks to Microsoft Windows to Diane von Furstenburg to Twilight, and its ‘inspired’ Fifty Shades of Grey.

The world is unpredictable, and that means we cannot foresee whether an idea or project will turn out as planned. In fact, the plan may very well become outdated before we even start to execute it. And if we can’t logically plan our way to success, then it must mean that success, when it happens, is a result of something unexpected—of something random. It is a revealing paradox.

The world is unpredictable, and that means we cannot foresee whether an idea or project will turn out as planned.

If Howard Schultz had never taken a stroll down a street in Milan and wandered into a café, Starbucks as we know it would probably never have happened. If Murray Sargent and Dave Weise hadn’t happened to meet at a party on the Microsoft campus one night, the operating system we know as Windows would have been killed off—and most likely the PC revolution would not have happened as quickly, if at all.

Yet, we resist this notion. We want to explain away success as being more than just good fortune or luck. Indeed, very few people I talked to had spent much time thinking deeply about how to incorporate randomness into their corporate or professional strategy. The reason seemed obvious: randomness defines the part of our lives that we can’t control, so how can we rely on it?

Simply put, randomness makes us stand apart. In The Click Moment, I talk about a number of different approaches for using randomness to our advantage. Here are a few of them:

1. Increase the number of click moments in our lives.

This is a lot easier than we think. Most of us, by nature, are creatures of habit. We like the familiar and avoid placing ourselves in uncomfortable positions. In a crowded room, we tend to gravitate toward the people we know, rather than striking up a conversation with a stranger. And we become so immersed in a certain path—or the momentum has driven us so far down it—that we’re unwilling to question or take our eyes off it.

Instead, change up your routine. Go to a different café. Read a magazine you otherwise never would. Talk to someone in the elevator, on the plane, or in the park—and go beyond the weather and your busy schedules. Surround yourself with people who are different from you, be it their backgrounds, their professions, their cultures. Embrace that diversity.

Randomness defines the part of our lives that we can’t control, so how can we rely on it?

2. Reject the obvious path.

If we do what’s logical—take the path that everyone ‘knows’ to do—we will do exactly what someone else is doing, and never stand apart. My friend Marcus Samuelsson, food activist, restaurateur, and chef-owner of Red Rooster, recounted to me how he came to be the guest chef for the White House’s state dinner for the Indian Prime Minister Mammohan Singh.

Every state dinner since 1874 has featured French-American cuisine. The White House invited 15 elite chefs, including Marcus, to present a menu for the dinner. Everyone presented a French-American menu with a meat dish, save Marcus. Knowing Prime Minister Singh is vegetarian, he presented a vegetarian menu inspired by Indian flavors. He was selected as the guest chef, and the White House broke its French-American state dinner tradition.

3. Make lots of bets—but purposefully.

Pablo Picasso made over 50,000 works of art in his lifetime. The Virgin Group has launched over 400 ventures. And Rovio had developed 51 games before it scored one of the bestselling games of all time: Angry Birds. What all these successful individuals and companies had in common is that they placed many, many bets.

With over 1 billion downloads since the release of Angry Birds in 2009, Rovio appeared to have come out of nowhere to dominate gaming. As a result, people believed Rovio to be a so-called “overnight success.” But this was anything but the truth. As you now know, Rovio had developed dozens of games over the last eight years. Prior to Angry Birds, none of those games had been memorable.

While it’s good to have a plan, great innovations are often unpredictable. Ask yourself, how can you make randomness work for you?

What’s Your Take?

Has randomness and unpredictability been a major factor in your success?

Comments (13)
  • Janelle Zhao

    Looking back, I can attribute a lot of what I’m doing now and the opportunities that I was “lucky” enough to get to the few moments and events that I felt most uncomfortable doing. Increasing these “click moments” almost goes against my intuition sometimes, but I’m always glad I did.

    Anyway, loved this article! Going to check out your book now. 🙂

  • Gbemi-Lolade

    Nice Article. The awesome click moment. This article makes it easier to allow randomness in our lives.

  • Srinivas Rao


    This is really interesting to me because my entire career has been a bit of a roller coaster ride, but there have been defining moments that changed things.

    My friends returned home from our study abroad in Brazil one week earlier than planned. As a result I caught my first wave, and surfing transformed my life forever.

    When I graduated from bschool I couldn’t find a job. I started a blog, and as a part of it a weekly series called interviews with up an coming bloggers. 300 interviews later I’ve created a show that reaches a global audience.

    What I’ve learned is that things of great significance don’t occur in a linear fashion. I once even went so far as to say that making too many life plans limits your potential. When we’re absolutely rigid about those plans we miss out on opportunities that might require us to make one turn in a different direction.


  • Beth Robinson

    I loved the Medici Effect and the idea of crossroads. This next idea of increasing randomness to improve the odds is one of those that feels naturally obvious in innovation/creativity literature, but I don’t recall hearing it stated quite like this before. I’ll look forward to reading your elaborations on it.

  • Frans Johansson

    Thanks for comments! Really appreciate it. This has been true for my entire life, as well. And once I scratched the polished surface of the various success stories we hear all the time it turned out to be true for them as well.

    What I found particularly interesting is that if you ask someone how to become successful in any given industry or field they will outline some sort of “strategy” or plan. But if you then ask them how they became successful it becomes a lot of “oh, well – I met this person at that party” or “never in a million years had I expected to get into fashion – I majored in marine biology…” and so on.

    It seemed obvious, therefore, that the “strategies” are just a way to make sense of the randomness – but that the randomness was what created the success in the first place. So in the book I outline what you could do to dramatically increase serendipity and randomness and harness it when something good happens. It’s been a ton of fun and hard work bringing it all together. Hope you enjoy it!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    I also agree that so much of success is being open to “reality.”

    So often we build up in our minds what “should be” and ignore what is.

    When I started my time coaching business, I thought I would serve mostly female entrepreneurs. But instead my clients ended up being a 50/50 split between men and women and the majority are employees. (My website was even pink at the time!)

    By being open to the reality of who truly valued my services, I was able to transition into the right niche.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Jan O'Hara|Tartitude

    I enjoyed this article. Thank you. Will check out your book when it’s out.

    I’m reading Your Brain at Work and he makes the case for working with randomness as well, that nose-to-the-grindstone thinking stifles creativity, and one should become aware of when they’re brain requires priming with something different, something playful or random. Helpful stuff.

  • Xym Ocimaer

    while I agree with the concept that the ‘click’ moments seem to come out of nowhere, the back of my skull seems to suggest that these random moments are the actuality of plans failed, and succeeded in the past. In short, we build the randomness through our constant toothless, never-say-die formulas(read-perseverance). Albeit, only time can tell. Good piece though.

  • mark daniels

    Thanks Frans. Totally agree with that. There are so many opportunities that we stumble upon/into every day without even realising. I always feel the ‘lucky’ ones are those that see those opportunities and take them. Must practice more!

  • Marisa Swanson

    Life is a game of opportunity mixed with preparedness (I read that somewhere, wish I could remember) or what some people like to call “luck” and also “randomness.” 🙂

  • Arjan

    Randomness is the initiator of all of my projects / businesses. It’s why I named my mother company after it: Applied Opportunities Group.

  • Mau Nipal

    Everyday we forget about taking a risk (although it isn’t really a risk after all!) to do something different, a random thing, but when it’s done you know something has changed. And that something might be a good start for a great thing.

  • Στυλιανή Βαρβάρα+

    Unpredictable circumstances are made 4 unbalanced knowledge create destructible Wisdom direct in deficit the surround living Society……++++***&***++++

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