During a lecture at the University of Lille in 1854, Louis Pasteur remarked, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” Getting unstuck often starts with an interesting situation getting your attention. What makes a situation interesting enough to get our attention is that it deviates from the norm. We notice something and then have an insight that connects what we notice to an opportunity for an improvement. If the 3M scientist, Dr. Spencer Silver had ignored the result of his failed experiment to make a super-strong adhesive, we might have been stuck in a world without Post-It Brand sticky notes. If the Swiss engineer, George de Mestral had not marveled at the tiny hooks that allowed cockle-burs to attach themselves to his dog’s fur, we might never have benefitted from the hook and loop fastening system known as VELCRO®. Silver and de Mestral had prepared minds when an opportunity knocked.
Organizational leaders feel disoriented by the volatility and hyper-competiveness of today’s business environment. What’s worse, we can no longer rely on traditional management tools like business process optimization to produce predictable results. Process optimization doesn’t work when a process becomes obsolete. For example, why expend energy reducing the cost of producing music CDs when nobody wants them? Consequently, topics like innovation and design thinking have replaced process reengineering as popular skill sets for managers.
Unfortunately, leaders who have been trained to optimize business processes are not well equipped to take advantage of interesting situations that deviate from the norm. Generally speaking, the minds of today’s leaders are not well prepared to be favored by chance. For most of today’s leaders, chance is a nemesis; variability is the enemy of efficiency and productivity. When design thinkers encourage us to invite uncertainty and ambiguity into management processes, they create problems for leaders who have been trained to reduce surprises and variability. Anticipating the emerging challenge of preparing managers to become more innovative, Jeanne M. Liedtka and John W. Rosenblum wrote in a 1996 article for the California Management Review,
When we reduce variation, we increase the performance of the system in the short term. In the long term, we deprive the system of the new information that it needs to move forward.
Henry Mintzberg, a pioneer of strategic thinking made a similar point, “…tomorrow’s vision may grow out of today’s aberration.”
The “prepared mind” gets more chances to improve things because it can recognize opportunities that the unprepared mind ignores or dismisses. The prepared mind is curious and asks questions. The prepared mind has an expansive outlook and a flexibility of attention capable of entertaining a wide range of options. The barrier to improving our organizations may not be a lack of analytical skill or imagination. The problem may be that the unprepared organizational mind only knows what it sees, because it can only see what it already knows.