Taking Chances

Tom Robertson: Posted on Tuesday, January 01, 2013 3:57 PM

http://www.thinkingteams.net/blog/assets/0_0_0_0_84_68_csupload_52974532.jpg?u=634926634272060931 “Part of the $10M I spent on gambling, part on booze, and part on women. The rest I spent foolishly.” – attributed to George Raft 

Maybe George was onto something, at least the gambling part. Taking a chance on an uncertain outcome is often considered foolhardy or even immoral, yet chance-taking is at the core of life. Everything about our biology is built to capitalize on chance events, from the connection-rich carbon atoms we’re made of, to the way our DNA lets the occasional mutation squeak by, to the way sexual reproduction rolls the genetic dice. But ….. Why take chances?  

Our biology takes chances because it has no choice – the universe is more complicated than any organism can be pre-wired to handle. Our bodies grow highly-structured organs to insure our survival, but we need to adapt to an ever-changing, unpredictable environment. Nature knew the definition of “luck” before there was anyone to articulate it – “preparation meeting opportunity” – in this case, unpredictable opportunity.  

Organizations can take a lesson from this. Yes, we do need our organization charts, our policies and procedures. These are based on what worked in the past, and that’s really important – experience is the foundation of our business. Our policies and procedures also keep us safe from known or potential danger. That’s important, too; we can find ourselves out of business if we are found non-compliant by industry regulators, for example. But while we’re keeping ourselves out of trouble and making money leveraging our experience, let’s make sure we are also set up to adapt to the rich unpredictability of markets, technology, and even our people.  

Biology capitalizes on unpredictability by taking chances, by making sure every once in a while, some “wild” departures from status quo have a chance to prove they are better. Organizations can do that, too. Gmail and Google News were unpredicted results from Google’s policy of encouraging engineers to spend 20% of their time on personal interests they think will help the company. Bose Acoustics and Digital Equipment Corporation emerged from the work of interdisciplinary teams in MIT’s Building 20, a re-configurable work space that encouraged productive interaction, without knowing everywhere it would lead.  

So, be like nature: fight fire with fire. Build your organization to allow unpredictable solutions to unpredictable problems and opportunities.  

–Tom