I love it when a plan doesn’t come together

Guest contribution by | 07.05.2020

In my youth I was a big fan of the A-Team. Legendary was the saying of the leader Hannibal with a huge cigar in his mouth:

“I love it when a plan comes together!”

When you look around companies, you often see the exact opposite. Wilhelm Busch is more likely to be the order of the day:

“Things often turn out to be different from what we might have expected.”

In how many situations in the last days and weeks did this saying come to your mind? Who would have thought that the top travel destinations in 2020 would be balconies and gardens thanks to Corona? Who would have thought that our children would be able to study at home for weeks? Our lives are full of surprises.

In the corporate world, the motto is usually – Leave nothing to chance! Plans are made, risks are assessed and forecasts for the future are made. In an increasingly complex world, the effort to avoid unpleasant surprises is constantly increasing. Does it make sense to keep surprises out of private and business life?

Mould and other strange surprises

Failures can cost a lot of money. In the worst case, they can even cost a company its very existence. The following three stories are about losers who didn’t turn out as they thought they would. In many companies, they would probably have been kicked out long ago or at least put in a position where they couldn’t cause so much damage.

Mould in the laboratory

My favourite story is the one by Dr. Alexander Fleming. Fleming was experimenting with staphylococci in his laboratory. Before his summer vacation he forgot some petri dishes in which he had placed the bacteria. On his return, he found that a mould grew in some of the bowls, which prevented the staphylococci from growing. The penicilin was found by chance.

Thank God there was no clean-desk policy in this lab. Who knows how long we would have waited for this life-saving drug. Actually, we also know very well that not in all our “petri dishes” something big is created. Nevertheless, optimising financial ratios and maximising efficiency ensures that we save “petri dishes”. We prefer to invest time and money in measures to avoid risks and failures.

C22H30N6O4S – the failed drug

Let’s stick with drugs. Have you ever heard of sildenafil? A team of researchers from the south of England experienced a proverbial blue miracle in their search for an active substance against coronary heart disease. Sildenafil achieved disappointing results in clinical trials. However, the male volunteers were less disappointed. Some of them regained erections after using Sildenafil. Even if Sildenafil does not mean anything to you, you have certainly heard of Viagra. This “blue miracle” brought the pharmaceutical company Pfizer billions in sales in the following years.

The glue that doesn’t stick properly

Another unlucky person was Dr. Spencer Silver of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, better known as 3M. The goal was to develop stronger adhesives. However, his discovery was easily detached and therefore did not meet the specifications at all. A classic fail! But Dr. Silver was a bit ignorant and did not stop telling his colleagues about the discovery (which probably makes him the unofficial inventor of Fuckup Nights).

One of these colleagues was Art Fry. He had a negative surprise every Sunday. At the Sunday service the bookmarks had fallen out of the choir book. Couldn’t he have used Spencer Silver’s glue…? The product they were developing was probably something that each of us had held in our hands at one time or another – the Post-It. Legend has it that the colour canary yellow is also just a coincidence. There was yellow scrap paper in the lab next door.

Using surprises to achieve business success?

Obviously surprises are not so bad. In any case, they helped the losers from the three stories to great success. The following three theories and models of thought should encourage you to welcome surprises in your company instead of preventing them by excessive planning.

Surprise your customers

The Kano Model has already crossed the path of the regular readers of this blog several times. The so-called enthusiasm features are not expected by customers and their absence does not create dissatisfaction. But if they are present, customers have been positively surprised. The blue miracle pill from the failed heart medication generated hundreds of letters of thanks from happy test persons during the trial phase. There was even a break-in at the Pfizer laboratory. Some customers were obviously prepared to pay a very high price for this drug.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade

But what if you are confronted with negative surprises in your life (private or business)? The Effectuation principle has the answer – use chance. Life gives you acid in the form of lemons, just make lemonade out of them. This motto was taken to heart by the Swede Yngve Berqvist. The businessman had a flourishing rafting business. Since winters are long and icy, he looked for another source of income. With ice sculpture workshops and the accompanying exhibitions he found a business for the winter months. But Mother Nature gave him acid and one day rain destroyed the sculptures. Berqvist made a virtue of necessity and the ice hotel was born. At the beginning of winter the ice hotel is built and in spring the hotel melts away again. So every year a new ice hotel is built. Berqvist proved that you can turn a negative surprise into a profitable business. For over 30 years the thaw has been a constant companion of the company.

Fragile, robust, antifragil

Nicholas Taleb goes one step further in his book “Antifragility: Guidance for a world we do not understand”. He is convinced that the consistent avoidance of surprises is more than missed opportunities. It is harmful. Organisations that fend off chance and uncertainty are fragile. Sooner or later these organisations will break like a wine glass. The opposite of fragile is not robust for Taleb, by the way. Robustness simply means being able to withstand external influences over a long period of time. This is why he coined the term antifragil. Something gets better and better through external influences. A prominent example for the hobby weightlifter Taleb are muscles and bones. By the way, much does not help much. Nicholas Taleb recommends avoiding risks that mean total loss. It is rather a matter of taking many small risks and not committing to one option too early.

Now what?

The stories are quite nice. The theories are interesting. But how do you start, exactly? Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with a five-step plan for more surprises.

Do you want to give yourself more room for surprises for now? How about these three ideas:

  • A lot of people write a diary or a journal during this time. Why don’t you write down which surprises happened to you during the week? What were the positive surprises? Where did it happen differently than you thought? Where could you make lemonade from lemons?
  • Google Earth takes you to exciting places around the world. Just press the symbol with the dice and you will be surprised with cities and sights. The very brave ones can choose their next destination.
  • Let the restaurant around the corner surprise you. Don’t ask about the menu, let the waiter choose the dish.

Even as a team or an entire organisation it is worth putting surprises on the agenda:

  • Why not take the subject of surprises with you into your next retrospective? Where were there surprises in the last sprint? Were they positive surprises or did the surprises throw us off track? With what kind of enthusiasm could you surprise your customer?
  • Create surprising encounters. In my company there is a Connecting Lunch. By chance, two people are drawn by lottery to have lunch together. Of course this also works with coffee breaks or remotely.
  • Or how about surprising solutions for persistent problems? Why not play improv theatre? You can find the instructions at Liberating Structures.

Of course these first steps are no guarantee for the next Nobel Prize, the next miracle pill or the billion dollar business idea. In fact, some surprises will probably be anything but pleasant. But there will also be some really great surprises. Then think of Hannibal from the A-Team, treat yourself to a cigar or your favourite drink and say to yourself:

“I love it when a plan doesn’t come together.”



If you like the article or want to discuss it, feel free to share it with your network.

Tobias Leisgang has published more interesting posts on the t2informatik Blog:

t2informatik Blog: Advantages of Remote Work

Advantages of Remote Work

t2informatik Blog: What if? – A call to thought experiments

What if? – A call to thought experiments

t2informatik Blog: And he does play dice...

And he does play dice…

Tobias Leisgang
Tobias Leisgang

As CompanyPirate Tobias Leisgang inspires on the blog of the same name and in lectures people in companies to tread new paths. He is convinced that successful and sustainable business in the 21st century requires radical change.

Tobias knows the business world very well from his full-time job. Since November 2018, he has been responsible for innovation with external partners at a global automotive supplier – from group to start-up. Previously, he worked for 15 years for an American technology group in roles ranging from developer to head of systems engineering, gaining insight into companies from various industries. The challenges were solved in global teams.