Quantifying “luck” and studying its effects
Interesting article by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen in the NY Times on the role of luck in business success. I thought the way they identified “luck events” was clever:
Better to be lucky than good, the adage goes.
And maybe that’s true — if you just want to be merely good, not much better than average. But what if you want to build or do something great? And what if you want to do so in today’s unstable and unpredictable world?
Recently, we completed a nine-year research study of some of the most extreme business successes of modern times. We examined entrepreneurs who built small enterprises into companies that outperformed their industries by a factor of 10 in highly turbulent environments. We call them 10Xers, for “10 times success.”
The very nature of this study — how some people thrive in uncertainty, lead in chaos, deal with a world full of big, disruptive forces that we cannot predict or control — led us to smack into the question, “Just what is the role of luck?”
Could it be that leaders’ skills account for the difference between just meeting their industry’s average performance (1X success) and doubling it (2X)? But that luck accounts for all the difference between 2X and 10X?
Maybe, or maybe not.
But how on Earth could we go about quantifying something as elusive as “luck”? The breakthrough came in seeing luck as an event, not as some indefinable aura. We defined a “luck event” as one that meets three tests. First, some significant aspect of the event occurs largely or entirely independent of the actions of the enterprise’s main actors. Second, the event has a potentially significant consequence — good or bad. And, third, it has some element of unpredictability.
We systematically found 230 significant luck events across the history of our study’s subjects. We considered good luck, bad luck, the timing of luck and the size of “luck spikes.” Adding up the evidence, we found that the 10X cases weren’t generally “luckier” than the comparison cases. (We compared the 10X companies with a control group of companies that failed to become great in the same extreme environments.)
The 10X cases and the control group both had luck, good and bad, in comparable amounts, so the evidence leads us to conclude that luck doesn’t cause 10X success. The crucial question is not, “Are you lucky?” but “Do you get a high return on luck?”
Return on luck: We call it ROL.
SO why did Bill Gates become a 10Xer, building a great software company in the personal computer revolution? Through one lens, you might see Mr. Gates as incredibly lucky. He just happened to have been born into an upper-middle-class American family that had the resources to send him to a private school. His family happened to enroll him at Lakeside School in Seattle, which had a Teletype connection to a computer upon which he could learn to program — something that was unusual for schools in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
He also just happened to have been born at the right time, coming of age as the advancement of microelectronics made the PC inevitable. Had he been born 10 years later, or even just five years later, he would have missed the moment.
Mr. Gates’s friend Paul Allen just happened to see a cover article in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, titled “World’s First Microcomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models.” It was about the Altair, designed by a small company in Albuquerque. Mr. Gates and Mr. Allen had the idea to convert the programming language Basic into a product that could be used on the Altair, which would put them in position to be the first to sell such a product for a personal computer. Mr. Gates went to college at Harvard, which just happened to have a PDP-10 computer upon which he could develop and test his ideas.
Wow, Bill Gates was really lucky, right?
Yes, he was. But luck is not why Bill Gates became a 10Xer. Consider these questions:
• Was Bill Gates the only person of his era who grew up in an upper middle-class American family?
• Was he the only person born in the mid-1950s who attended a secondary school with access to computing?
• Was he the only person who went to a college with computer resources in the mid-’70s? The only one who read the Popular Electronics article? The only one who knew how to program in Basic? . . .