Smart Luck

No one likes to think their successes are the result of pure chance. Most cite their hard work and diligence first, giving the roll of the dice last billing in the achievement department. Why give all that credit to something beyond our control?

In their new book, Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business, Thor Muller and Lane Becker argue that luck is not only within your control, it’s something you must harness as your own personal ally. We’re not talking about “dumb luck” here, but rather something the two successful entrepreneurs call “planned serendipity,” or the ability to take chance experiences and distill them into eight skills: motion, preparation, divergence, commitment, activation, connection, permeability, and attraction.

In this portion of the book, Muller and Becker show readers how to practice the skill of divergence, making difficult decisions in order to take advantage of challenging, serendipitous environments. They use the separate paths of two major book retailers to illustrate their point. Read on to find out how Barnes & Noble was able to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing marketplace, and how Borders’ response to the same problem left customers cold.


We all like to think we’d jump at a brilliant idea if it smacked us in the head, but few of us or our companies ever do. This, more than anything, is why people like to say that ideas are cheap. In truth, great ideas are priceless, but we only know which ideas are great with the benefit of hindsight. Without a mindset to try out divergent paths, uncertainty and inertia conspire to keep us ignorant.

Few of us or our organizations ever develop such a mindset. Instead, most companies follow the common refrain to “put all the wood behind one arrow”—that is, to focus all resources on one goal or priority. The problem with this setup is that the arrow must be aimed perfectly, to penetrate its target in just the right spot.

The monolithic bookstore chain Borders is a tragic example of a wood-behind-the-arrow approach to running a business. Since its founding in 1971, Borders grew from an independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to over 500 stores in the U.S. by 2010, employing almost 20,000 people.

In the late ’90s, online e-commerce was just hitting the mainstream, infusing a great deal of uncertainty into the book and media industries. Borders, facing this tidal wave of uncertainty, decided to put all of its wood behind the arrow that had brought it so much success to date. Rather than get distracted by the shiny new world of Web-based commerce and probe for new ways to pursue its mission on this new medium, the company doubled down on its physical stores, spending billions to refurbish them. Instead of putting a similar effort into bolstering their Web presence, they outsourced the operations of their online store to an upstart competitor,

Borders had recoiled to what they thought of as their core strengths, in-store retail sales. In other words, Borders made a big bet on the status quo, took aim with their arrow, and missed their target by a mile. Unfortunately for them, shoppers did not buy more as a result of their store remodelings. They shifted to buying online and downloading music and movies digitally. As Borders’ business quickly disintegrated, the company found itself out of time and money to pursue new paths.

The cautionary tale of Borders reminds us that the modern business is in a perpetual state of finding its path in the world. The business environment is constantly in flux, and this has never been more true than in today’s hyper-connected world. The only way we or our companies can survive over the long term is by finding or creating new niches while simultaneously inhabiting present ones, a tricky balance to maintain. Divergence—the ability to explore different paths—determines whether we are able to adapt to new conditions as they emerge.

We can see this in Border’s primary main brick-and-mortar competitor Barnes & Noble, which pursued a very different approach. Instead of putting all the wood behind one arrow they invested in a branching, a powerful strategy for exploring new paths.

During this same volatile period that Borders was narrowing its interests, Barnes & Noble aggressively created and marketed their own online store, which eventually led them to develop an e-reader, the Nook, to compete with Amazon’s version, the Kindle. Each branch Barnes & Noble pursued opened up new possibilities for further branching. Though the transition from a traditional retailer hasn’t been easy, Barnes & Noble is still very much in the game, unlike the bankrupt Borders. The reason is that they’ve continually expanded their options. They are a book retailer that did become a consumer electronics company over time, through its Nook product, by employing a successful branching strategy.

For many years Barnes & Noble has been branching from their main retail business, extending but not undermining their primary business. They launched their own publishing imprint for public domain titles, built their own infrastructure for online retail, created a partnership with Starbucks to encourage in-store activity, and invested in their own Nook e-reader once digital books became inevitable. The result was that they were ready to double down when the ripest opportunities revealed themselves.

Anybody can develop the skill of divergence and do what Barnes & Noble did: use the strategy of branching as a way to probe for greater and greater opportunities.

** Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business by Lane Becker and Thor Muller.  Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  All rights reserved.


Thor Muller and Lane Becker are co-authors of Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business (April 2012; Jossey-Bass). Based in San Francisco, they are co-founders of several companies including Get Satisfaction, a platform for creating customer communities based on products and brands they care about.

Meg White

Meg White is the managing editor for REALTOR® Magazine and administrator of the magazine's Weekly Book Scan blog. Contact her at mwhite[at]

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  1. Anne Meczywor

    “Luck” is what happens when you work hard and plan ahead to be in the right place at the right time. Funny how those who work the smartest are often the “luckiest”!