Alistair Croll in conversation with Lane Becker, author of Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work For You and Your Business.
All opinions expressed in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.
Click to read the full transcript of this episode.
[00:00:00] Alistair Croll: [00:00:10] Hi, and welcome to another edition to FWDThinking. My guest today is Lane Becker and it’s thanks to CGI who are sponsoring our Executive Book Club [00:00:20] for a conversation about Lane’s book Get lucky. Lane has an extensive background in both non-profits and the public sector, as well as a story set of experience as a [00:00:30] designer in the startup world, which is where many of the ideas for Get Lucky came from. Please join me in giving you a very warm FWD50 welcome to Lane Becker. Hey Lane, how are [00:00:40] you?
[00:00:41] Lane Becker: Hey, Alistair. Let’s do it. Thanks for having me.
[00:00:44] Alistair Croll: So I finished the book. I have lots of questions. First of all, it made me very nostalgic as [00:00:50] someone who has worked in Silicon Valley and seeing the sort of rise and fall and rise of the dot.Com world. I think the best anachronism was that you refer to influencers there’s [00:01:00] influentials, which I thought was funny. Almost got the name. Right. But there are a lot of things in there that I think are true about organizations. So [00:01:10] before we dig into that, why don’t you tell folks about your, your interesting and varied career in the public sector and the private sector?
[00:01:17] Lane Becker: Sure. Absolutely. I [00:01:20] will actually say I wrote this book when I was transitioning from doing work in the startup universe into where I’ve been working mostly for the last decade. And it’s been a decade since I [00:01:30] wrote the book, primarily for nonprofits and governmental organizations is where I am these days and actually writing the book was sort of part of what convinced me. I [00:01:40] wanted to, to make that leap because I realized some of what I was discovering the book actually. I think potentially in contrast to what might, what folks might [00:01:50] expect, but it’s actually finding more opportunity for new ideas and interesting innovations and space to kind of think and grow and try new things in governments and [00:02:00] nonprofits than I was finding in the startup universe, circa 2012.
[00:02:05] Alistair Croll: That’s not what most people would expect. I don’t know. You know, we think of governments as these [00:02:10] big sort of sluggish, ponderous organizations and startups as these lean agile organizations. But in many of the companies that you look at in the book, It’s about big [00:02:20] companies and their inability to innovate. And then you cite some exceptions to that rule like 3M. And I think you really dug into the sort of 3m case study about how it took three years to even find a [00:02:30] home for an innovation. Can you use three Amazon example of some of the principles you’re talking about in the book?
[00:02:36] Lane Becker: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, 3M has the, and I will say in the 10 [00:02:40] years, since we wrote the book, this this particular example is become a lot more canonical. But we talk a lot about the post-it and then the invention of the post-it and what we really try and emphasize in a 3M [00:02:50] section of the book. And what I think is most interesting actually about the post-it story is not the part where they, the person who invented it had this sort of aha moment. Oh, here’s this glue that sticky, [00:03:00] but reusable and it’s it was sort of two things. One was first how. After he discovered that glue, which you know, was interesting and inventive and sort of miraculous. [00:03:10] He had no idea what to do with it. It wasn’t like the idea. It wasn’t like the idea to chart it into a post-it note, to put it on small pieces of paper that can be bundled into a patent and sold. It’s not like that [00:03:20] came to him overnight. It took a really long time and frankly, roaming around the organization presenting it, talking to different people, asking folks for ideas [00:03:30] about how it might be used. And finally, having someone suggested it could be used potentially to hold up sheet music when when performing, when performing music that sort of created this [00:03:40] inspirational moment of, Hey, this could actually be something, this can actually be a product, something that we use. And it’s so funny, cause post-its are iconic now. And to go [00:03:50] back to that story and realize like, oh, step one was, you know, oh, accidentally find like discovering this special kind of glue followed by years of trying to figure out what to do with it. And then on the other side [00:04:00] of figuring out what to do with it, actually trying to convince the company itself that it was something that needed to get created and produced since it was new. So we have the sense of the post-it note as [00:04:10] this lightning invention, but the truth is it was a brief moments of inspiration scattered throughout a multi-year process. That was just an intense grind. And I [00:04:20] think that is one of the things and the thing.
[00:04:23] Alistair Croll: Well, one of the things that came away from that I took away from that particular story was how backwards their initial [00:04:30] ideas were. Even when they figured out that this, this adhesive could stick things. They were like, we’ll make giant boards that are sticky and people can put paper on them as opposed to making paper sticky and having people put it [00:04:40] on boards, like exactly backwards.And it almost seems like the patients and organization needs to have to pardon the pun stick with something like [00:04:50] that is, is like unwise. Like you’d be fired for wasting three years and countless presentation. So, so how does an organization [00:05:00] balance the desire to keep experimenting and keep trying new things with like, look, just give it up already. You’d let it die.
[00:05:09] Lane Becker: Yeah. I mean, I think [00:05:10] you used the word balance and I would say the word is balanced. I think it’s about creating structures and spaces and opportunities that allow people to do that. I mean, Google [00:05:20] sort of 20% time and a 20% and on your own idea is a very famous version of this. I think it’s ultimately a failed one. Find me a person that works at Google in the last decade that’s spent any [00:05:30] time on a 20% project that wasn’t actually a 20% project that was turned into something more. But I still think that there’s opportunities for structures that are [00:05:40] potentially less demanding, let’s say than something like that. Right. So, you know, we talk in the book a little bit about like, what if you give people opportunities [00:05:50] to experience new things at lunchtime? What if you create spaces for employees to present their ideas to each other? What if you give more structured version of time off, or even potentially like [00:06:00] short-term sabbaticals? I think there’s a lot of room for creativity and invention. I think the challenge most organizations have is that, you know, they don’t, they don’t really have a plan. They don’t really [00:06:10] have any sort of plan for a long-term strategy or long-term product development. Right. They don’t have any sort of arc or horizon for that sort of thing.
Everything they do is in the short-term or at best the media. [00:06:20] You know, you mentioned agile development processes earlier, and this is sort of why I realized, Hey, it might actually be a lot more innovative to go work inside a giant [00:06:30] bureaucracy like the federal government than go work for a startup. I can’t find a startup that thinks in anything more than two week increment these days, right? Like agile for all of it and it [00:06:40] don’t get me wrong. I love the agile development process use it in all of the places I work and all of the things that I do. But it definitely encourages a specific cadence of thinking that [00:06:50] moves at a speed that is much faster than people sometimes need to, for other things. So you go work in a giant organization, they actually have the space, the time, the [00:07:00] resources and the people to give you that room to give you that time. It doesn’t mean they always do it, but if you can find the right one, you can find these pockets of invite or [00:07:10] environments or places to have these sort of experiences that you can actually maneuver a little bit better.
[00:07:17] Alistair Croll: So I’m going to give you so [00:07:20] eight principles in the book that you talk about that are ways organizations can sort of optimize for serendipity and change their structures. So maybe I can just give you [00:07:30] the prompts to them and you can tell me briefly what they are. And then I’d like to get into like what you’ve seen work in government, the private sector and the public sector.
[00:07:38] Lane Becker: Oh, man. I wrote this book 10 years ago. [00:07:40] This is so stressful. It feels like quiz time, but we’ll see how it goes.
[00:07:44] Alistair Croll: At least the least I can give you some tips on it. So preparedness seems pretty straight forward. What do you mean by preparing. [00:07:50]
[00:07:50] Lane Becker: Preparedness just means sort of do it, doing your homework, right? So I’m thinking and operating and acting in ways [00:08:00] that sort of showcase that, you know, what you’re talking about that you’re focused on or experienced or intelligent are sort of [00:08:10] learned enough in a particular area that when something shows up that’s relevant or related, you will.
[00:08:16] Alistair Croll: And also, I guess not just the opportunism, but the ability to be able to [00:08:20] react to that. If you have systems in place to go, that’s worth focusing on and getting some attention to a
[00:08:25] Lane Becker: hundred percent, one, one thing I will say just about the book writ large, that I’ll [00:08:30] probably say in response to a lot of these, is that so much of what we talked about was about like giving yourself the space to notice something when it has. [00:08:40] Right. So much of like opportunities, serendipity, new ideas, new functions, new possibilities happen around us all of the time. So much of what we were trying to do in this book was [00:08:50] showcase all of the different ways that you can actually see those things when they happen. Right.
[00:08:55] Alistair Croll: It reminds me of the David Foster Wallace thing, you know, this is water, but the two fish that are swimming [00:09:00] along and the old time fish that has the water and the two smaller fish go what’s water. Like just knowing that you’re in it is half the problem, right?
[00:09:07] Lane Becker: Yeah, absolutely. I like it. [00:09:10]
[00:09:10] Alistair Croll: So a motion. What do you mean by motion.
[00:09:14] Lane Becker: means just not getting stuck. Right. So, so much of what we end up doing [00:09:20] inside the companies that we work in, the environments that we participate in, honestly, so much of like being good at your job is about getting good at doing the same set of things over and over and over again. [00:09:30] Right. And so motion is about putting yourself in different environments or putting yourself in different places that allow you to kind of break that routine and see, or learn or encounter something [00:09:40] new. Right. So emotion can mean, I mean, I think that sort of serendipitous experience that everybody has had in the business world, Pre COVID admittedly was going to a conference [00:09:50] being at that conference and experiencing something new that was super relevant and interesting and related whether it was like a conversation that you had in the hallway or a particular [00:10:00] presentation that you saw the motion that’s.That is an example of motion that is just putting yourself in a new. Right. Putting yourself in a different environment in order to see [00:10:10] what has changed and what it is.
[00:10:11] Alistair Croll: And it sounds like it’s not enough to be in motion. You need to actually attract people around you or ideas around you to yourself. So you mentioned [00:10:20] attraction, which isn’t really attractiveness, but can you talk about that level?
[00:10:23] Lane Becker: Yeah. Oh, so I have, I have a friend old friend named Brian and he used to be, I’ve met him through technology, [00:10:30] actually used to be an English teacher and he told me a story once.Trying to grade someone’s personal essay on all he could think to write at the top of the page was try to make yourself more [00:10:40] interesting. I just remember thinking like, hmm. Yeah. To write a good personal essay. That’s sort of what you need to be. You need to be. That’s kind of what attraction is. Attraction is the answer to [00:10:50] the question. How do you make yourself more interesting? What can you sort of the opposite of what I was talking about with motion?
If motion is you putting yourself in places that allow you to bump into or run into new [00:11:00] ideas, new concepts, new people who might have something that generates a spark in you, attraction is about being the kind of person that other people want to come to in order to share [00:11:10] ideas or share knowledge. Right? So, so much of what people do So much of what people do on LinkedIn is about attraction, right? It’s about how can I showcase my [00:11:20] knowledge, my ability, my skillset here, so that people understand I am an expert or I’m interested in this particular topic. And so when it’s time to talk about something or show off something that they’ve done, they [00:11:30] seek me out.
[00:11:32] Alistair Croll: So you mentioned some other some other elements that sort of help with attraction and, and motion. I’m not going to get into too much [00:11:40] detail, but like the ability to connect with others. And so on the things I really want to focus on though, is you talk about porposity. Governments obviously have a [00:11:50] lot of barriers between public and private between departments, between divisions. How do you manage to be porous without sort of losing the guard [00:12:00] rails on the work you’re doing in departments and so on?
[00:12:04] Lane Becker: You know, that is such an excellent question. So porosity, as you can imagine, is [00:12:10] just being in an environment or creating an environment if you will, that allows people to kind of move in and out of the building, right? To interact with new types of people, to interact, interact with new types of [00:12:20] individuals. Again, it’s kind of part of this being, being in this larger environment. And thinking about that in a structural way. Like how can an organization do it? And you are 100%, right? This is a place [00:12:30] where governments are terrible. So it’s pretty funny when you think about all of the places that governments actually need to do public comment, right. Or interact with the public in some way, shape or [00:12:40] form. But particularly I spent several years in the US federal government, and I was always struck by for all of this sort of like open comment, mass comment, ways in which we were supposed to interact with the [00:12:50] public, we were pretty uniformly terrible at it. And part of the reason for that I think is because we had these almost Kabuki, like bureaucratic structures for those interactions that really [00:13:00] were designed to reduce the risk of interacting with the public. Right. Which really cuts against this idea of serendipity or luck or sort of [00:13:10] being able to experience something new. So I think it is really a challenge for governments. One of the things that we did as an organization when I was at [00:13:20] 18F in the federal government where we’re working on technology improvement, technology invasion sorry, technology innovation initially under the Obama administration [00:13:30] one of the things that we did was we kind of adopted a lot of, like, we were like, well, we can’t do this at the agency level. In our case, we can’t do it at the organization level, but we can do it [00:13:40] at the team level. Right? Like we can do this at the team level. We can. Kind of adopter adapt traditional methods of user experience research, or any sort of design research, [00:13:50] design thinking work. We can adopt those methods and, you know, working within the bureaucratic structures, making sure we didn’t violate any laws or didn’t take up too much, too much of the citizenry’s [00:14:00] time.
We nonetheless, we’re still able to use those to connect at least on a product level and occasionally sometimes on a team or a department level to understand here’s how people think or [00:14:10] here’s what they do. So some of it, I would say is just asking, like, what can you experience? How can you experience it? And at what level?
[00:14:19] Alistair Croll: A [00:14:20] lot of these elements seem to be in contradiction. So for example, you talk about diversions, which is like, let’s go do lots of different but you also talk [00:14:30] about commitment, which is like, let’s stick to our knitting. And it seems like these are all good points, but you need a lot of judgment to navigate the two. So [00:14:40] can you talk about the tension between commitment and divergence?
[00:14:43] Lane Becker: Yeah, absolutely. And I, I sort of made that comment facetiously, but I do actually [00:14:50] think that a lot of this work is about sort of being able to hold these tensions or these contradictions in your head. Right? I mean, so much of what we talk about in the book around you getting [00:15:00] lucky or, you know, plan serendipity or what I sometimes like to call it these days, continuous innovation cause it seems a little more businessy. But it kinda means the same thing, which is just [00:15:10] like keep coming up with new ideas. So much of that is about being able to hold these. I mean, frankly, it’s something entrepreneurs are very good at, right. Like being [00:15:20] able to hold these contradictory concepts in their head. Right. Like the best entrepreneurs that I know can both believe that they’re going to change the world and also like wonder where the money’s going to come from tomorrow. Like, that’s sort [00:15:30] of, you’re kind of constantly living in this form of like extreme sort of, you know, visionary madness on the one hand and extremely extreme, like focused in reality. And [00:15:40] I think the further out you’re able to get about those extremes, the better you are as an entrepreneur. And I think that’s true for this, this sort of thinking as well. Like once you have a mature or more established business and you’re trying to [00:15:50] come up with new ideas or new ways of working, you do at best buy. You do a best buy sort of investing different amounts at different times in these different concepts. I, I would [00:16:00] say that honestly, one of the things I did since I did a couple of things since writing this book, including going to work for governments, but I also kind of took a brief, a brief detour into venture [00:16:10] capital just to see if I would enjoy it. After my startup experience, I did not. But but I learned a lot about how they manage and think about risk [00:16:20] and it was incredibly useful to me. Right? So venture capital is generally take a portfolio approach to doing any sort of work, right? They say, we’re going to invest 30% of our money this year in these kinds of new [00:16:30] projects, 40% of our money. And these kinds of do projects 10% and these super high risk ones, and 10% will be reserved for follow on investments. Those numbers aren’t accurate, but you get my point by [00:16:40] doing that they’re able to put some structure around this uncertain. And I think that’s how an organization can succeed in this area too. Right? Like divergence is, Hey, let’s try, let’s try some [00:16:50] new stuff. Okay. How much of your time, how much of your resources, which is really time money or time as represented through money? How much of your resources are you going to [00:17:00] devote to this? And then how much of it are you going to devote to commitment? How much are you going to do it to a doubling down on the things that you think might work? Because you have some early indications that they’re [00:17:10] going well. Right. So, and
[00:17:12] Alistair Croll: I’ve been writing a blog about this stuff called tilting windmill awhile ago. And it was really about innovation [00:17:20] portfolio management that there’s some amount of portfolio you devote. When Larry Page split up Google, one of his reasons for creating alphabet was that that way [00:17:30] we could have you know, the allocation of innovation versus revenue generation, that sort of cash cow versus question mark kind of business [00:17:40] models where certain of their business models like Waymo were far more focused on research budget. And then other ones like ad words were much more revenue generators. And it does seem like [00:17:50] we haven’t thought about innovation as a portfolio, the way we should.
[00:17:54] Lane Becker: Yeah, I think that’s a really good way to put it. Certainly one of the things I learned in my time in [00:18:00] government is that large bureaucracies are much more comfortable with even pretty significant uncertainties when you can model it in a spreadsheet and you can model uncertainty in a [00:18:10] spreadsheet just as easily as you can model certainity. And once, once I sort of unlocked that particular thing, I was actually able to give really, I mean, you know, I would work with our finance teams and I’d be able to give them, I’d [00:18:20] be like, I don’t know what we’re going to tell them. I don’t know what we’re going to invest in this year. Right? So we had a small pot of money available for investing in new ideas. I tell them, I don’t know what we’re going to invest in, but I can assure [00:18:30] you, we’re going to spend this much money on this type of investment as much on this site, as much on this type and this much on. And they were fine with it. The end of the year, they’d be like, you’re one of the most fiscally responsible teams we’ve [00:18:40] got. I feel like that’s fascinating, but not unsurprising because I think the level of risk we were taking on forced us to actually start to think more fiscally responsibly, [00:18:50] again, somewhat contradictorily. But nonetheless, I think
[00:18:52] Alistair Croll: true.
Big risks, you know, casinos have really good accounting for a reason.
[00:18:58] Lane Becker: That’s a fine way to put it on. I feel [00:19:00] like there is there it’s almost entirely loaded on the patient.
[00:19:05] Alistair Croll: So, one of the things that really stuck out to me, you talk early on in the book about [00:19:10] how groups of strangers outperform individuals on a number of decision-making tasks. And there’s some really counterintuitive examples in the [00:19:20] book. Can you talk a little bit about like group think and the risks designed by committee versus strangers coming in and being held accountable to what they they’re doing [00:19:30] and sort of cognition.
[00:19:32] Lane Becker: Yeah, absolutely. Well, so I would make a distinction between what we were talking about, which is something that looks a little bit more like a prediction marketplace, right? So it’s a and [00:19:40] group think or a bunch of people sitting around designing by committee. This, you know, one of the things that technology actually allows us to do at this point is crowdsource there’s that term [00:19:50] all sorts of different kinds of behaviors. Right. And if you think about it in terms of people’s behavior, I think it’s a little bit different. So for example, you can get many, many, many, many varied [00:20:00] opinions all of which people came to separately in one place now and use that collectively to, you know, determine risk, right? Like that’s functionally, what [00:20:10] a prediction market place does, and that is quite different from sitting everybody down in a room and having them to come to consensus. There’s no consensus in the prediction marketplace model. There’s just [00:20:20] the thing that comes out of everybody doing this. And I think that understanding the difference between those two models is actually pretty critical to being able to understand like when we want to apply this kind of [00:20:30] thing. And when we don’t, like, I would still strongly encourage folks to to avoid that sort of consensus driven, particularly consensus driven [00:20:40] innovation, but figuring out how to bring in alternate voice I think if anything, in the 10 years, since we wrote this book, I think finding ways to do that has become more critical. [00:20:50]
[00:20:50] Alistair Croll: So since you mentioned in the 10 years, since you wrote the book there’s a few ideas in the book that have been challenged open spaces for productivity, for example you [00:21:00] know, you were very bullish on let’s get rid of the cubicles. Although as you point out, the Cuban was originally created to be very empowering and sort of agile. We see people [00:21:10] working from home with far less interaction these days given the pandemic and all these other models. You mentioned the example of cigarette smokers being a source of [00:21:20] innovation because they were, it was a way to sort of transcend organizational boundaries and just hang out, out, back, smoking a cigarette with the boss and ideas come up. How do you [00:21:30] feel a decade after putting the book out about the risks to motion and the challenges of finding new interactions given our new work patterns of work from home and [00:21:40] COVID and the gig economy, like it does seem like there’s a real change in the, the motion, the attraction, the porosity that you’re arguing for that we’ve kind of lost [00:21:50] in, in virtual.
[00:21:52] Lane Becker: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I find, I think this is just like such an area that is right, right with opportunity for folks. And we’re starting to see, I [00:22:00] mean, we’re starting to see this, right. We’re starting to see people start to explore how we might do this. I do think we’re going to get a lot of really interesting new hybrid tools and hybrid models that will come out. I am a [00:22:10] recently used one of them Kumo space. It was called actually we used it for a week at the Wiki media foundation where I work these days, which runs Wikipedia and that sister projects. We [00:22:20] had an all hands, which obviously couldn’t do in person. And so we did it virtually and they threw up this Kumo space concept and sort of like, you know, draws a picture of like a break room. And then everybody at whatever [00:22:30] time they want could wander on and you can see a little icon, it’s got the spatial audio. So then you get closer to people. You can hear them. And. Hard. I rolled at this when I first [00:22:40] saw it, as I noted so many of my coworkers like, oh God, how, why, what, why are they making me do this? This is terrible. It’s cheesy. It’s ridiculous. And then I used it and I was like, oh [00:22:50] no, actually this is quite fantastic. And I ended up accidentally in a conversation with several coworkers that I happen to, you know, saw a group of people on the screen. I wandered [00:23:00] towards it. It turned out the topic they were discussing was actually something extremely relevant to me and surprising for that motion because of that motion concept, extremely relevant. And we actually have one of those [00:23:10] folks working on our team now working on the exact problem that she was describing, because she was unable to do that successfully and the team that she was on, but our team was completely right for it. [00:23:20] And I absolutely would not have had that experience. If we just been doing something that looked more like sort of this standard screen interaction like this, so kudos for them for figuring it out [00:23:30] that said, I still think there’s a whole bunch of work there to start. I think there’s, I think we’re just we’re at that we’re at the, you know, we’re filming the stage play version of [00:23:40] this technology. And I think we’re going to see a lot of really interesting innovation in the years to come. I love
[00:23:45] Alistair Croll: that analogy of filming the stage play rather than making the movie. Yeah, we haven’t figured out the [00:23:50] medium yet. We know the medium exists. We used Kumo Space actually for FWD50. And in the mornings, when I was saying to people, Hey, welcome to the stage and all this, I would [00:24:00] show Kumo space on a screen and explain how it worked and by day three people realized that if they were in that room at like 10 .05, they’d be on screen. So people started [00:24:10] showing up every morning. It was like just sitting outside, you know, good morning America or whatever is waving in the window is kind of, kind of interesting.
[00:24:17] Lane Becker: That that is a bit to sort of extend the [00:24:20] metaphor. It’s sort of like you know, in the early, in the early days of cinema, when they were first projecting ed and the Lumiere brothers had the, like, here’s the train coming towards the camera. And they had to get up in front of the [00:24:30] audience and explain, no, the train’s not real. Like it won’t come off the screen and get you. You’re going to be fine. Yeah.
[00:24:37] Alistair Croll: Sometimes I wish something would come out of the screen and hit me because [00:24:40] it would make more proactive. What about changing constraints? You mentioned that you mentioned the stuff that I never heard about construal [00:24:50] level theory which I thought was pretty cool, but it’s this idea that if you set up constraints, you get good things coming out of them. And so changing the [00:25:00] constraints of time or distance or social network allows you to work better for certain types of work, particularly creative work. And it does seem that what you [00:25:10] espouse is great, but for governments many of the things public servants work on are too far away or too different from the social world they’re in, [00:25:20] like, if, if finding these constraints of time or distance or social helps you to innovate and find new things. The [00:25:30] ability to change the constraints of time or space or social group within government seems harder than it is. If you’re in a sort of startup where you’re making up your business model. [00:25:40]
[00:25:40] Lane Becker: Yeah. You know, I discovered a new constraint that I’d probably add to this book in the years that I worked in government and that’s money, you know what governments can constrain, [00:25:50] they can constrain money. They don’t, it’s not a thing that governments do. And everybody’s always looking for more money for more projects. But over and over, I had this fascinating experience [00:26:00] when I worked at my agency, which was that the projects that were underfunded did really well. And the projects that were overfunded did really bad. I mean, it’s always so struck by [00:26:10] that. And I remember actually thinking like, oh, this is a model of constraint that I hadn’t actually considered because I had never, at that point worked in an environment that had as much money as the US federal government did, since it, you [00:26:20] know, both indented and maintains the fiction of money. There’s quite a bit of. So I was really, I was really struck by that and struck by how it was an interesting lever [00:26:30] point that you could use to determine the success or failure of something and that people had at their disposal. We had a really simple rule for the projects that we would fund through our technology thing. We would have them [00:26:40] budget out how much money they thought they needed to get through, say a year. And then we would just remove 10% from that budget and give it to them. The teams hated it, but they did a great [00:26:50] job. That was really struck by that, right while everybody else in the government was trying to figure out how to lard up their budgets. We were busy pairing ours back, and I think it really helped [00:27:00]
[00:27:00] Alistair Croll: so Lenny Rachitsky who you may know from a bunch of startups and products and stuff. So years and years ago, Lenny Rachitsky gave a talk at Bit North about [00:27:10] serendipity and he reprised that as a TEDx talk in Montreal and his first slide was the Google search, which simply said, you know, go or [00:27:20] I feel I’m feeling lucky. And this whole talk was uncertain Benevity and his whole point was the I’m feeling. Lucky button was a much better way to go find out about stuff. Just show me [00:27:30] something unexpected. And now as Google’s taken that out of their product, but this idea that you can pick up a magazine from an industry, you know, nothing about, [00:27:40] or, you know, try out something and take a different route to work and see what you notice. It seems like we’ve got this weird [00:27:50] yin yang. And I think this is the sort of underlying message I took away from your book that there’s efficiency, but in a world where everything is [00:28:00] sort of automated to be optimized automatically, we live in this world where an algorithm tells me how many glasses of water drink or whether I’ve walked in out for whatever, you know, we’re [00:28:10] all being told to do the thing that is efficient to do the thing the machine wants us to do. And it seems to me like there’s this tension between normative and [00:28:20] formative thinking. Normative thinking, being like what’s normal, what’s expected, what’s intended and works great in the past and will probably work in the future and formative, which [00:28:30] is like stuff that’s unexpected built up from first principles, principles in the moment it’s less efficient, but it might be interesting. And it does seem to me like as a society [00:28:40] we need to balance, you know, follow the wisdom of the truth of what’s worked in the past versus reinvent stuff based on how much change is happening in the world around us. [00:28:50] So like in periods of low change, maintain, you know, if you’re running a business and things look normal, keep going, as you will invest a little in what might be different, but when you notice huge [00:29:00] shakeups in the technology of your industry or the business models of industry, you got to now start doing weird stuff because you need to discover something different. And so it does seem like this [00:29:10] weird constant tension and the job of the leader is to set that compass, like how weird are we feeling today? How much do we think the [00:29:20] future will be like the past? What have you seen working for leaders to shift the culture of the [00:29:30] organization between like, Hey, get to work on the stuff we know we need to do. And everybody take a weird route to work today and see what you notice. Cause like taking the weird [00:29:40] route to work you might not be the fastest way to get there, but you’re going to see something new.
[00:29:44] Lane Becker: Yeah, that is a fine question. There are a lot of different ways to do that. You can do [00:29:50] that a lot of different structures that you can do to do that. But I honestly think at the end of the day, it is mostly about whether or not as [00:30:00] a leader, you have genuinely like you have genuinely created the space. And the, if you have genuinely created the belief in the people that work for [00:30:10] you, that you mean it, when you say that you want those things and often the best way to do that is to demonstrate it by doing it yourself. Right? So I feel like so much, [00:30:20] like I’ve watched companies, leaders, you know, talk until they’re blue in the face about all of the ways that they want to encourage these behaviors. But if at the end of the day, they’re still rewarding people [00:30:30] entirely for how efficient they are, how much they’ve managed to reduce against what they already have. It doesn’t mean anything. Right. And then I’ve seen leaders who actually do create [00:30:40] structures that give people space and time, you know, their version of the 20% rule or something that encourages people to explore or create. [00:30:50] But then they don’t really back that up by showcasing their willingness to do it right. Their willingness to try and fail. I would say what you need is a [00:31:00] leader that is both willing to create the space for that sort of thing, and is also willing to just do it themselves and to show themselves doing it. And ideally to show themselves maybe failing [00:31:10] in some sort of spectacular way. Right which is a little bit anathema on the current culture of leaders. Even among folks who like to talk a different game, even [00:31:20] amongst the Ted crowd, they don’t really like to get up on stage and, you know, completely Bork it. They just, you know, fix, fix that in post. So I think there is, I really think though that at the end of the [00:31:30] day, what you need is you need to be able to showcase that to people. I mean, not to get all Bernay brown on anybody here, but like, there really is something to her when went to her [00:31:40] process when she talks about the importance of vulnerability in a leadership capacity. And I think this is one of the ways that it gets expressed. That is how you get the people that work for you to believe you when you [00:31:50] say that you want them to try to do something.
[00:31:53] Alistair Croll: Awesome. Well I think we’ve touched on most of the points and obviously the conversation we’re going to be having we’ll have a bunch of leaders [00:32:00] who hopefully buy into these kinds of ideas. It’s amazing for us that CGI helps us put on events like this, where we can bring an author like you. But I love this [00:32:10] case. The fact that not only are you an author like that, you also work like trying to find talent for code for America or doing the 10X stuff with the GSA. A lot of these lessons, it’ll be [00:32:20] interesting to hear how 10 years later, the initial thoughts about serendipity and luck and opportunity have been filtered through 10 years of the [00:32:30] nibble stone of public service. I’m sure that’s going to be a lot of fun. Thank you for taking this trip down memory lane with me. Many of the things that I read in there, I was like, oh, I remember that thing for [00:32:40] the.com world. And it feels sort of so innocent now.
[00:32:43] Lane Becker: It was, it is it, I know we were so innocent.
[00:32:45] Alistair Croll: But, but many of those lessons are kind of timeless. And I think some [00:32:50] of the examples you present companies like Avon and post it, and so on. Obviously we’re able to do that over a much longer period of time and those lessons still hold. True. So thank you so much for [00:33:00] sharing with us. Look forward to our conversation a few minutes in a few weeks, sorry. Any last thought?
[00:33:06] Lane Becker: Yeah, I just want to say I’m so excited to have this conversation and [00:33:10] specifically to talk about all the things that have changed in the last 10 years. Since I wrote the book, I, if anything, I’ve become convinced in the years, working for a large bureaucratic government. The [00:33:20] lessons in the book, if anything are more applicable to governments than they are to just about anywhere else, because they are mostly lessons for big organizations to think about how to change. And I’ll be so interested to chat with [00:33:30] folks and to understand, to get a sense for and understand their perspective on where these, where they think these ideas are applicable, because I certainly think that they are
[00:33:38] Alistair Croll: awesome. Well, we’re looking forward to [00:33:40] it. We’ll see you in a few weeks and picks again.[00:33:42]
Lane Becker: Thank you.[00:33:50]
Why do some organizations thrive, while others slumber? Are they just lucky? And if so, can we understand that luck? Lane Becker thinks so. The one time startup founder has since worked with Code for America, 18F, and the US GSA—including running incubator programs in those organizations. He’s currently the president of Wikimedia. And he’s the author of Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work For You and Your Business.
In preparation for our third Executive Book Club, I interviewed Lane about serendipity, opportunistic thinking, and what organizations can do to create “luck” of their own.
The book was published in 2012, at a time when we had a far more utopian view of technology than we do today. It contains a few anachronisms: Influencers are called influentials; the book celebrates open-plan offices, which we now know hamper deep thinking. But most of its lessons are timeless, and it’s packed with case studies.
In the ensuing nine years, Lane’s spent time in civic tech, government, and nonprofits. So in addition to getting an understanding of the book, we touched on how Get Lucky’s lessons might apply to the public sector.
If Lane looks familiar, that’s because he delivered an amazing keynote, Finding, funding, and defending good ideas inside government, in 2018 in Ottawa.