Many operate from a belief that organizations, and lives, can be made successful through well-planned strategies and goals, supported by tightly-scheduled to-do lists. I have always questioned this belief system, and have never lived my life this way, Perhaps I am just looking to justify my obstinacy, however, a new book, Antifragile by Nassim Nicolas Taleb, has added fuel to the fire that burns within.
In 1980, as a candidate for a Master of Science in Management at the Sloan School at MIT, I enrolled in the requisite course in corporate strategy, taught by Professor Mel Horwitz.
We spent the semester studying exceptional corporations—those that exhibited results orders of magnitude better than average. The thesis of the course was simple: if we peer into the minds of management and discern the strategies that led down the road to success, we could repeat, or surpass their triumph.
Near the end of the term, I asked a question. “Dr. Horwitz,” I began, “if we were to take a random sample of 1000 companies today, follow them for 20 or 30 years and plot their results on a chart, those results would undoubtedly form some sort of distribution, perhaps even a normal curve. Most of the companies would have moderate results—a bit above or below the average. There would undoubtedly be those whose results were far below average, and a few with results that beat the average in spectacular ways; it is the nature of the law of averages. That being the case, what is the possibility that we spent the semester simply studying the statistical outliers and nothing more. Is it possible their results had little to do with an extraordinary ability to peer into the future and divine a path to success? Could we simply be studying the lucky?” Suffice to say the kindly Professor Horwitz did not like the question.
Enter Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb believes what we did in graduate school—showing in hind-sight that a carefully followed strategy led to great results—is equivalent to lecturing a bird on flying, and then, after they have taken flight, claiming it was our cogent, insightful words that delivered the remarkable result. To fly is natural. After months of experimentation and “tinkering,” a fledgling takes flight by courageously stepping out of the nest and trusting she merely needs to spread her wings.
Creativity, innovation and success are driven, not by well-planned strategies and tightly-schedule action plans, but through rabid tinkering and experimentation. Doubtful? Two words: Steve Jobs.
My thinking was clarified dramatically in a recent conversation with an intensive care nurse. She has been with hundreds the moment they passed from this life to the next. “The expression I see most often as a life ends is regret. It is as if they are asking ‘Is this all my life amounts to?’”
I don’t know what allows a person to leave this life with a deep sense of satisfaction, but I have a hunch. It is not by checking one last item off a life-long list. I have never witnessed a bird with a checklist in advance of first flight…or for that matter, blueprints on how to build the nest from which to leap.
If I never have the courage to spread my wings and leap into the unknown, will the final expression on my face be a fait accompli?