We plan for a reason. We’re told that if we analyze and observe, we can decide the best path for success. The Normandy Invasion took nearly two years to plan and just two months to implement; it resulted in over a million allied troops in Europe. The Ford Motor Company adopted a similar approach to business, led by a group of army statisticians. The "Whiz Kids” reorganized the company under the auspices that you could logically plan your way to success — and it worked.
But then, something odd happened. The world started changing. Technology upset industries, and many industrial titans were left behind. According to Forbes, “Half a century ago, the life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 was around 75 years. Now it’s less than 15 years and declining even further.”
The reason: planning is no longer a foolproof strategy for success.
Industries now change too quickly for our plans to work. In fact, the only real reason for a plan today is to force yourself to act. The Click Moment, a new book by Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, explores this idea. (You can check out the trailer for the book here.) What does it mean for politics, business and life when the world increasingly relies on random chance?
Here are three bizarre, seemingly random events that changed history.
1. The Blood Fluke that Saved Taiwan
From 1927 to 1950, the Communist (CPC) and Nationalist Party of China engulfed the country in a bitter and deadly civil war. In the midst of the fighting, nearly two million Nationalists fled mainland China to Taiwan. Despite the relative safety of an island, modern military historians believe that a small amphibious attack would easily have destroyed the last of their resistance. Sensing an opportunity, the Communists planned a final assault.
Located a hundred miles from mainland China, Taiwan lacks an accessible seaport. Unable to dock, the CPC decided to transport thousands of troops across the Taiwanese Straight on wooden junks and swim to shore. To prepare, soldiers were given swimming lessons in the canals of southern Chekiang and northern Fukien. After months of training, it looked as if victory was certain for the Communists. They had more men and more weapons.
Then soldiers started breaking out with flu-like symptoms.
The CPC had unknowingly trained 30,000 to 50,000 soldiers in canals infested with snails. The snails carried the parasite Schistosoma japonicum, which destroys both cognitive and physical development in its victims. Doctors from all over China rushed to the region, but without an adequate supply of medicine, most cases were left untreated. It took close to six months to get the situation under control, but by this time, the Americans were patrolling the Taiwanese Strait. The invasion window had closed.
"It's really hard to imagine how different Sino-U.S. relations would be if the invasion would have worked," a program officer at a non-profit that works extensively in managing U.S./Chinese partnerships told me, "simply because nearly every aspect of today's relationship would be different."
2. Brasília: the New Capital
Today, Brasília is the capital of Brazil, a UNESCO landmark, and home to about 2.6 million people. But just under 60 years ago, it was essentially barren. Located about 1,000 miles from the developed coast, the middle of the country was characterized by dirt roads and underdevelopment.
That year, presidential candidate Juscelino Kubitschek was campaigning in the area. It was a normal stop, until a heckler changed everything. “What about Brasília?” the heckler yelled. Suddenly, an awkward silence filled the room.
The heckler was referring to a clause in the 1891 constitution that would move the capital of the country from Rio de Janeiro to a new inland location — Brasília.
At the time, it was believed that building the center of government in a remote area would spark economic development in middle of the country, but no one in power really took the idea seriously. “I had hardly considered Brasília before then.” Kubitschek later told the New York Times, but that didn’t stop him from making a promise to the crowd.
“I will implement the constitution.”
And just like that, Kubitschek made a promise that would transform the nation and define his presidency.
3. The Mongol Invasion of Japan
We all know that Ghengis Kahn conquered most of the Asian continent. What many don’t know is that his grandson almost conquered all of it.
After overtaking the Song Dynasty and establishing control over a united China, Kublai Khan set his sights on Japan. He sent over 23,000 men on 900 ships to invade the nation. The army landed on the island of Kyushu and easily slaughtered the overmatched Japanese warriors. However, a terrible storm came and over 13,000 men drowned. Kublai retreated.
Seven years later, in May of 1281, Kublai repeated his efforts.
He sent over 100,000 soldiers in 3,500 ships to Japan. A storm hit again, sending most of the ships to the bottom of the ocean. Nearly all of the men died. Japan remained independent of Mongol control. The Japanese believed that their gods had sent the storms to preserve Japan from the Mongols, and they called the two storms kamikaze, or "divine winds."