What are the chances of that?

Written by
Paul Kirkham

09 Aug 2016

09 Aug 2016 • by Paul Kirkham

The phrase has been overused and abused, but the concept itself resonates closely with other models of change. Incremental improvements go only so far: sooner or later there’s a disruption, and the apparent certainty of the old is replaced by the apparent certainty of the new.

Very often the breakthrough comes courtesy of radical thinking – a new way of looking at things, a novel approach, creativity, risk-taking, a willingness to flirt with uncertainty. Even the most enduring of paradigms can be cast aside in this manner. Let me give you an example from academia, and then let’s see how the lessons it provides are relevant to any organisation with a genuine interest in progress.

A lesson from history

Christina Lee is an Anglo-Saxon scholar; Freya Harrison is a microbiologist. Both work at the University of Nottingham. They first met at an Old Norse reading group, where they discovered a shared interest: plague.

Suitably enthused, the pair acted in the spirit of inquiry. They trawled a thousand-year-old medical treatise in the British Library; they found an Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye infections; and they tested it.

Remarkably, it was shown to be highly effective against MRSA, the modern-day superbug that costs the NHS and other health services around the globe a small fortune every year. US research collaborators described the results as “astonishing”.

That a long-forgotten 10th-century concoction has a 21st-century application is wonderful enough, but perhaps just as intriguing is what this episode tells us about our accepted view of the Dark Ages. For the recipe that Lee and Harrison followed couldn’t have come about by accident.

It’s inconceivable, after all, that someone simply stumbled on the realisation that, having been left to fester for nine days, a mixture of garlic, wine and ox bile could be used to treat infection. The overwhelming likelihood is that its formulation was deliberate and precise.

This has profound implications. First and foremost, it suggests the Dark Ages weren’t quite so dark. We can infer that some sort of experimental science was being carried out – probably led by practice rather than theory – and that there was a deeper culture of learning than has long been thought.

Supporting serendipity


The facet we need to concentrate on here is the contrast between Anglo-Saxon science and present-day serendipity. The first was deliberate; the second was anything but.

For those interested in entrepreneurship the phrase that springs to mind is “the power of informal networks”. These are networks that sometimes don’t even recognise themselves as such.

The innovations and discoveries that come out of them can’t be planned or predicted. Nor can they be forecast or measured by the metrics that obsess bureaucrats. As the story of Lee and Harrison illustrates, the targets they hit are those that no-one has seen – and the resulting value is frequently so great that even the most time-honoured paradigms can be challenged.

Often such revolutions are down to the attitude of the individual. As another micro-biologist Louis Pasteur observed: “Dans les champs de l’observation le hazard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.” (“In the field of observation chance only favours the prepared mind.”)

In most organisations, though, even the best-prepared minds need support. Original ideas won’t thrive by relying on good fortune alone, regardless of how they might come about.

Encouraging uncertainty

The entrepreneurial capability of any organisation is revealed by asking how it would respond to a project like Lee and Harrison's, which came out of two entirely unrelated departments and at first glance didn’t really fit with either.

Many organisations would react with something akin to horror, appalled by the role apparently played by providence and the possibility that the whole affair might come to nought. As Lee and Harrison showed, however, the true waste doesn’t lie in devoting time and energy to novel concepts that could ultimately lead to a dead end: it lies in deterring novel concepts in the first place.

The exact structures may vary, but research has shown that the key distinguishing feature of the most innovative organisations isn't vision or strategy: it’s culture. Moreover, this culture doesn’t come from management: it comes from leadership, which is a different thing entirely.

Ideally, a fundamental characteristic of entrepreneurial leadership will be that it understands risk and uncertainty and doesn’t seek to manage them out of existence. For without risk and uncertainty there’s little chance of progress and less still of meaningful change. If prepared minds are encouraged and resourced then results can be expected, even if no-one quite knows what they might be.