Think for a moment how companies like Facebook, Yahoo, or Google got their start. A dorm wide website, a pet project “in a trailer,” and a graduate computer science research project. I find it hard to believe that any of the founders had any idea how big their companies would become or even aspired to a tenth of the success they achieved. It’s not that they didn’t have good ideas or work hard, but sometimes success snowballs and sometimes luck comes your way in little places.

Think for a moment how the United States became an independent republic, or how any of the Western European countries became democracies. Men (mostly) did sweat and conspire to build their visions in state form, but the results rarely resemble the original ideas too closely. The US had to go through a civil war to sort out some disagreement, only to find more problems.

What these parallel models have in common is that business people and statesmen are in awe of the results and then try to forcibly recreate prior success. Whether its trying to start “the next Google” or to stand up a democratic state where none existed, we want to believe that the same success can be duplicated. But most often it can’t. “Managed evolution” doesn’t work. The original result is the effect of specific clusters of people, institutions, decisions, path dependence, and a lot of randomness strewn throughout.

Far better to discover the fundamental variables that fostered an idea than to seek the same result.