‘Luck is the residue of design’: A Sports analogy for Defense Technology Scouting

While Super Bowl XLIX served plenty of excitement for Football fans across the globe, one interesting strand of dialogue among the commentators and ‘experts’ worth further consideration was the role of ‘lady luck’ in deciding key outcomes for both teams. For example:

  • Was it lucky that Seattle ended up with an unknown talent like Chris Mathews late in the season to help them clinch the NFC Title and almost repeat as Super Bowl champs?
  • Was it lucky that New England ended up with arguably one of the best Quarterbacks in NFL history out of the 6th round of the 2000 Draft?


  • Was that catch late in the game by Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse lucky?
  • Did the Patriots get “lucky” on that last play call by Seattle?

While many may attribute these events to “luck”, the organizations (and most specifically their scouts and coaches) would undoubtedly disagree and instead argue that it is all the result of diligent preparation and the rendering of a well-designed system.

They would be right! They would also find truth in the words of Wesley Branch Rickey, an iconic innovator in the Sports World. Mr. Rickey—who was responsible (among other things) for breaking the color barrier in Professional Baseball by signing Jackie Robinson and for “creating the framework for the modern minor league farm system”—explained: “Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best.” He continued: “Negligence or indifference are usually reviewed from an unlucky seat. The law of cause and effect and causality both work the same with inexorable exactitudes. Luck is the residue of design.”

The quality of organizational decision-making is not accidental and neither is the ability of organizations to succeed against determined adversaries and volatile conditions—including when a “lucky” breeze intervenes to nudge them slightly forward. This is as true for sports teams as it is for the United States Department of Defense!

Although some innovations in the world of Defense R&D can be accidental, serendipity as a strategy is a product of what Mr. Rinckey describes as “negligence or indifference”. Technology domain awareness and the ability of DOD to stay ahead of complex and dynamic threats by maintaining a superior technological edge cannot be left to chance in the ever-shrinking corners of the Defense R&D budget. Like those organizations that succeed at the highest levels of their craft, DOD should address its technology scouting and knowledge management efforts through a deliberate design that (among other things) is equipped to find the ‘Chris Mathews’ of the world in a garage somewhere, while moving the enterprise to act decisively against its adversaries.

Build to Adapt!