Innovation Success, Skill or Luck

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Many people spend years of their lives searching for the secrets of success. Most people believe success comes from doing what successful people do. 1986, “In Search of Excellence” came out, which sought to identify shared practices of 10 successful companies and publish them. This book was the first one in its genre. Did these companies become successful out of luck?


Let’s try this strategy by taking fifty firms featured in three best sellers in this genre – In Search of ExcellenceGood to Great, and Built to Last. Of the firms covered by these books, sixteen failed within five years, twenty-three underperformed the S&P 500, five became exceptional, and the remaining six became average. Only 10% of these “role model” companies became successful.

Now let’s look at the area of music. If you look at an artist that had a top 20 song, should you sign that artist? Your gut would probably say yes. A study looked at 8,300 artist’s songs from 1980-2008. It concluded that rather than signing the artist in the top twenty of 100 songs, you would have better market success picking the artist ranked between 22-30.

In many cases, songs that get top spots are “one-hit wonders.” The artists that tended to have more career success were the second-best to start with. Smart agents sign artists in the mid-twenty to thirties range because they got there by skill and not luck.

Luck’s Role in Innovation

People often confuse luck with taking a risk—I mean going from good to great out of nowhere. The difference between an okay innovation and a breakthrough is all about the right timing. Some levels of success can be attributed to the innovator, but luck often plays a big part.

When I think of luck, I think of it in the construct of a 2×2 matrix. The horizontal axis is the level of luck, the left side being zero (no luck), and the right side being 100 (every perfect condition). The vertical axis is your innovation capability, the lower part is zero (no innovation capability), and the top is 100 (innovation perfection).

In the lower left-hand corner, with no luck and no innovation capability, you have no chance. If you don’t innovate and leverage any form of luck, competition will eat you up. In the upper left, where you have great innovation but no luck, you might have some mediocre success, break even, or get acquired by someone. With unbelievable luck but no innovation capabilities in the lower right-hand corner, you have “blind luck.” Many people think they can consistently achieve success through luck, but it is not a strategy. In the upper right-hand quadrant, you have unbelievable innovation capabilities, and luck comes along.

Final Thoughts

In some cases, you can position yourself to achieve breakthrough success. It’s important to know when to pause an idea. When luck raises its head, you can take advantage of it and create that innovation success. Don’t think that you can do whatever someone like Elon Musk did and achieve the same level of success. It would be best if you recognized that you aren’t in complete control. Don’t try to control luck, but use your innovation capabilities to create ideas and have them ready to move forward with them when the timing is right.

To know more about achieving innovation success through luck and skill, listen to this week's show: Innovation Success, Skill or Luck.

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