When I was a young man, I met ice cream impresario Tom Carvel: widely credited as the entrepreneur who created big league franchising.
What struck me most about our conversation was that Tom’s first store was an accident: when his truck broke down on a road in Westchester, NY, and he lacked the funds to repair it, he started selling ice cream from the spot where he was stranded. He was smart and flexible enough to recognize that his original business plan wasn’t as good as the accident he had stumbled on to …..and he let the latter drive his success.
Levi Straus. Nike. Gatorade. Craig’s List. All more or less accidents
or experiments that turned out to be major enterprises. There is such a convoluted irony, a staggering twist of fate, in a guy who decides to create a superior running shoe with a waffle iron, succeeding at it and then turning that track meet tinkering into a global business.
There is a profound life lesson embedded in this syndrome. Sometimes, many times, more often than we give credit for it because to do so would toss out the rules and violate the convention that empowers so many of the guardians of the status quo – the lack of planning, of wrapping everything up in a ribbon, is the true driver of exceptional success.
Instead of holding life close to us and seeking to pull all of the levers in perfect synchronicity, sometimes we are better off -more successful and exhilerated-letting life run away from us and seeing where the jet steam can and will take us. Like a kid on a beach watching our kite do the kind of aerial acrobatics we could never engineer on our own, we need to let the wind do its magic and marvel and learn from it.
The other day, I observed the absolute worst salesperson I have ever had the painful experience of watching, try to make a sale. She came to the scene of the crime with a carefully scripted pitch in mind and as much as she saw that it was the wrong pitch for the wrong prospects, she refused to listen, to stumble on to an opportunity to sell her product in a different way, to have an accidental success, to watch her kite waltz through the afternoon sky.
She was opposed to accidents. Immune to them. Determined to stick to the script. She advised us that she was a Harvard MBA, that we were the equivalent of poorly informed misfits and she wasn’t going to find a way to sell her ice cream from a broken truck, thank you, no matter how much we were cheering her on to do just that.
We wanted to buy her product. We wanted it to work for us. But she refused to help us fall in love with what she was selling. She was a Harvard MBA. She didn’t deal in love.
History is replete with accidents that evolve into epics. When Abraham Lincoln was running for President, he was an accident of a candidate running against pillars of the nation raised by writers of the rules, of the conventions, to win high office and preside over the nation.
When Lincoln and his adversaries arrived at the Republican Convention, it was the accident who walked away with the prize and the same accident who would construct an administration of men he could not easily control, so that he could watch them invent solutions for a plagued nation. Men of soaring ambition and substantial intellect. Men who might rush past him in the jet stream.
Precisely what Lincoln prayed for. Abe knew he needed a plan to save the Union. And an accident.
As you construct your companies and departments, as you help to guide their evolution, as you preside over your life, welcome the accidents everyone tells you to beware of.