Survival of the Luckiest

Christopher Bramley
Sep 20, 2021
8 min read

I’ve come to agree with an interesting conclusion:

Darwin almost got it right.

It’s become an almost universal saying, at least in the English-speaking world: Survival of the Fittest. The idea that the most apt, the most finely-tuned to circumstances will prevail. This is something we apply to organisms, but it’s easy to forget that many complex human systems are, essentially, an organism or ecosystem, and we consider them as such knowingly or otherwise.

This idea is one I see strongly represented at a subconscious and conscious level on an almost daily basis. It must be true – if your system is the best out there, you surely should be the most likely to not only survive, but dominate. Right?

What is Luck?

In a way, survival of the fittest does define how things work in part, but not as much as we want to believe. Recently we have begun to understand that it is less accurate than the survival of the luckiest. Its survival of the fittest in serendipity; the right place at the right time combined with the minimum requisite fitness for circumstances is what truly guarantees survival.

Luck is an occurrence of positive, negative, or improbable events of note. A more scientific interpretation is that “positive and negative events happen all the time in human lives, both due to random and non-random natural and artificial processes, and that even improbable events can happen by random chance. In this view, being “lucky” or “unlucky” is simply a descriptive label that points out an event’s positivity, negativity, or improbability.” 1  But what generally affects a human system isn’t luck per se, because humans and many human systems are complex, and they exist within a complex society, and each has their own further strata of complexity. Thus, they usually have contingencies and redundancies most individuals lack.

Serendipity is not quite the same; it is a lucky event associated with the discovery that is positive in aspect. When we talk about luck in terms of progress and benefit, we are more often talking about serendipity – an unexpected, fortunate discovery that is beneficial to thriving.

Serendipity and Sagacity

Sagacity is the “acuteness of mental discernment and soundness of judgement”. Serendipity benefits from an approach where a system is ready to dowse and act upon positive circumstances, so sagacity is useful when we talk about managed serendipity, the art of detecting and amplifying likely opportunities, because this is more important than fit for purpose for an organisation. Organisations can adapt, or more likely exapt (or radically repurpose); humans are very good at doing this and so are organisations. But unless they are in just the right place at just the right time, that fitness for purpose may be wasted.

You can write the best software product in the world, but if it doesn’t get seen, another will take its place. Survival of the “mostly fit but far luckier” occurs. I’ve seen this countless times in the tech industry, most recently in a company that supplied state-of-the-art drones which were better priced and more advanced than anything else, yet was having a wide number of issues both internal and external despite this stronger, faster, more price-friendly suitability. This is where understanding Cynefin’s methodology of probing in complexity using multiple experiments to discover serendipitous circumstances is useful, because it helps us find new, coherent paths to our goals, or even new or better goals we hadn't seen, and retain relevancy – throughout the system. It’s not just about the product – agility, management, culture, and internal structure all matter.

Adapting Vs Exapting

There is another key distinction to be aware of in seizing opportunity. Adapting is the phrase used the most, because you are either adapting to wring advantage from your environment, or you are a dominant Apex Predator which adapts the system to itself. The second approach is never permanent, rare to attain, and a major source of complacency and competency-induced failure, so most systems work as the former. But we also exapt, often without realizing we are doing it (or conflating the two).

Adapting is the development of traits or features to meet a specific purpose. This takes time; Analysis, Reaction, Testing, Restructuring, Feedback, Infrastructure, and on. This can be the difference between seizing opportunity and watching it pass by. Many people are adapting to a circumstance, but it requires commitment, reactivity and fast feedback to change extremely quickly.

Exapting is the co-opting of existing traits or features developed for another purpose. This is far faster, and not only more effective but more widespread than you may think. Repurposing a process, item, or goal is extremely responsive and likely to be fit for purpose in far less time – and more completely, because the supporting structures are already there and require only tweaks. Many post-startup companies exapt in some way; humans exapt automatically by using the fine finger motor control centres of our brains for grammatical nuances, or by training to play the piano (we certainly didn’t evolve fingers with the aim to manipulate pitches of music derived from counterbalanced keys with hammers on the end, but hands that are remarkably adaptive and strong from grasping branches, tools and weapons, and with sensitive fingers from opening seed pods and tactile sensing of our environment can learn to perform this task exquisitely).

Viagra, Mouthwash, Microwaves, Upcycling, Flight, – all examples of exaptation. Personal or biological examples are too numerous to count, as we are individually natural exapters and repurpose not only other things but our own bodies without thinking about it.

The ability to react quickly and grasp opportunity is something that we all need to learn better – it is an ongoing journey in my personal life as well as my profession, and it is the same for any organization, because no matter how good they may be at initially grasping that opportunity, time, size and complacency inevitably dull this sense, which leads to orthodoxy changes and sometimes catastrophic failure. I love the further example of superglue here, as it’s thrice-serendipitous exaptation.

Superglue’s Roots

Dr. Harry Coover didn’t set out to make the strongest, fastest setting glue that he could; he set out, initially, to make clear plastic gun sights for Allied Troops in 1942, testing a variety of plastic materials. One of these, an acrylic resin – cyanoacrylate – was found to be unsuitable to make these sights, and instead bonded things together. It wasn’t formable and was just too sticky. Clearly not fit for purpose, it was discarded (although he had the foresight to patent it).

In 1951, he was working for Eastman Kodak trying to develop a heat-resistant acrylate polymer for jet canopies, and a colleague of his used the original discarded formula as a test for this purpose. On applying it between two refractometer prisms, to their surprise, they became solidly bonded. At this point of second serendipity, they realised the commercial use, and in 1958 it went on the market.

So, we have initial serendipity where the time and place were arguably wrong, and the exaptive possibilities were ignored due to focus on a measured outcome (clear sights). Then we have a rare example of another serendipitous moment for the same person with the same product, again with the attempt to reach a different goal, but this time with the product subsequently repurposed commercially. You could argue that the second time is a clear example of exaptation, or radical repurposing in the domain of complexity, but there is also a third repurposing here which is often misrepresented:

During the Vietnam War (not WWII as often mentioned), injured soldiers could easily bleed to death before making it to surgery. Emergency medics began closing or coating wounds with cyanoacrylate spray, which was found to be extremely effective at stemming bleeding and protecting against infection, although it could cause irritation. This meant soldiers were more likely to survive until they got to surgery, and many saved lives were attributed to it. It says something for the desperation of war – firmly within the chaotic domain at this point – that such a radical, untested repurposing was carried out, but it paid off. Today, Dermabond is a cyanoacrylate-related antibiotic adhesive developed especially to carry out this task without the irritation and cell damage, regularly used in wound closure and medicine; it wouldn’t exist without the 3 levels of exaptation/serendipity before it.

So, from a failed experiment to make a gun sight, to a chance test nine years later, one of the most ubiquitous glues in the world arose to dominate the market and then began to concurrently save lives, before being adapted into countless close variations for different bonding purposes across a wide spectrum of industries.

(This is also an excellent example of both innovation, and market disruption through ubiquity, concepts I go into more detail in Innovation & Sowing the Seeds of Disruption.)

So, what’s the Recipe for Success?

There is no one recipe to success. Context is key to everything, and unique to companies and situations. You may be able to use a recipe as a very loose basis to exploration, but that’s usually it.

The thing about serendipity and its close ties with innovation is that you can’t consciously repeat this innovative process. If I were to set out to create the new “best glue in the world”, you can almost guarantee that the WORST way I could attempt it is to try to invent a new gunsight! What works as innovation for one company will not work as innovation for another, because it’s already been done, and the context is not fitting. Serendipity is in constant flux, and how fit for purpose you are is only relevant when you find the right place and the right time.

Instead, focus on shallow, controlled dives into chaos to find what may spark that innovation, and learn to see the serendipity that exists, and amplify it. This will give you contextual paths forward towards possibly even better goals than you set for yourself initially:

So as mentioned, it’s less being the fittest, and more being just fit enough at the right time to engage, and that requires understanding that for most industries, 2019's market has utterly become a new landscape with a new demographic that has never been fully engaged before.

Sagacity is required, and Serendipity must be seized.

You can’t base predictions on chance. Some of us do seem to get more opportunities than others, and there is always an element of chance there, but you also have to be able to notice and take those opportunities, and you’d be a fool to rely on your “better luck” for anything substantial. It’s rare things simply fall into our laps, and this is doubly true in business – where you notice obvious, generic opportunity, you can bet another organisation probably has as well. If they are in the right place at the right time, it doesn’t matter how much better your product is, as long as theirs is good enough.

A lot of issues come down to managing this serendipity. Internal management, business decisions, culture, and the delivery of the value are all a base part of being fit enough, because it’s not just about the product but the infrastructure around it. It’s very common for companies to focus on the product and message rather than what lies behind it all, which is equally important.

So success comes from being fit enough in part, but mostly from managed serendipity, and this is not as easy to determine internally for many companies.

Understanding how to spark serendipity in innovation and take advantage of the opportunity is key and this requires an understanding of complexity and the ability to probe sense and respond, or in some cases chaos and the ability to act sense and respond. You then have the requirement of being able to change enough to take advantage of this, which is far faster done through exaptation than adaptation; already having that fitness is doubly fortuitous. This is where a consultant not part of your corporate infrastructure is very valuable, because it’s difficult to see all this from within. An outside viewpoint can be vital to seeing signs you can’t through culture and habit.

If you’re lucky enough to have a perfect opportunity drop into your lap… get it to market, and don’t waste it, but don’t expect it will ever happen and base plans upon it.

Chances are it won’t.

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