“We need a new way of thinking about our problems and our future. My suggestion is the management of paradox, an idea which is itself a paradox, in that paradox can only be ‘managed’ in the sense of coping with. Manage always did mean ‘coping with’ until we purloined the word to mean planning and control.” — Charles Handy, The Age of Paradox

Mark Twain, once said, “Name the greatest of all inventors. Accident.” He was right. Most innovations and breakthroughs come from mistakes, serendipity, false starts, set backs, and misapplications. Many innovations were unplanned and unexpected.

At their outset, many were unrecognized and unwanted. Innovations, breakthroughs, and major changes often come from unpredictable chaotic, and random events. That’s why the accuracy record of economists and planners’ confident and logical-sounding projections and predictions is so abysmal. It’s amazing how the same people who laugh at fortune tellers often take these elaborate plans and projections seriously.

Yet when innovative opportunities knock, many managers are in their backyard looking for four-leaf clovers. But if someone who can’t count finds a four-leaf clover, how lucky is he or she? The editor and author, Elbert Hubbard, observed, “A failure is someone who has blundered, but is not able to cash in the experience.” Most managers fail to cash in on unexpected opportunities.

There seem to be two core reasons for that. First, they don’t recognize the failure, set back, chance event, unexpected offer, or new wrinkle as a potential innovation they could cash in. That’s often because they haven’t progressed to the empathic level of customer and partner listening and understanding. They take the market or customers at face value. They’re only looking at today’s data or current performance gaps. These near-sighted managers can’t see beyond what is to what could be.

A second reason many managers fail to cash in on unexpected opportunities is because there’s no effective process for doing so. If it’s not in the official development plans or budgets, the unhatched potential innovation has no place to incubate, break out, and grow. That brings us to the innovation paradox: Random, chaotic, and unpredictable innovations need a stable management system and process to nurture the growth and development of “lucky breaks.”

As a long time student and practitioner of innovation, I still find James Brian Quinn’s classic Harvard Business Review article one of the most useful on the topic. The title of the article says it all: “Managing Innovation: Controlled Chaos.” It’s a perfect description of the management-leadership balance found in highly innovative teams and organizations. Controlled chaos aptly describes the unstable and stable, unplanned and planned process of successful innovation.

Strategic Opportunism and Organizational Learning

“The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” — Eden Phillpotts, early 20th century British novelist

In his article on “Crafting Strategy,” Henry Mintzberg provides a good insight to how strategies and innovative actions evolve and compliment each other in top-performing organizations: “Out in the field, a salesman visits a customer. The product isn’t quite right, and together they work out some modifications. The salesman returns to his company and puts the changes through; after two or three more rounds, they finally get it right. A new product emerges, which eventually opens up a new market. The company has changed strategic course.”

But in most organizations that salesman would be told to get back out and “do his job” by selling the customer the original product or some high priced add-on or support service. If he did make modifications, he’d be shot for not following the standardized process. In other cases, he’d be told to submit a Product Modification Input Solicitation form sending copies to product development, strategic planning, and three other committees to review. His regional manager would need a copy attached to his Call Report explaining where, when, who, why, and how he was spending each day of his time.

Successful strategies and innovations that evolve and cash in on unexpected problems or opportunities are part of a dynamic, organization learning process. Experiences, expertise, ideas, market and customer shifts, feedback, input and the like shape the emerging strategies and point the way to innovation pathways.