Engineering serendipity

In the previous column, I advocated that innovation has traits of both chance and logic, referring to it as a “dialectic” approach to innovation.

In essence it means that although innovation can be improved upon through proper practices, processes and structures, there is still no “formula” for innovation and you have to be open to the reality that innovation can happen through many pathways. So, organisations must be open to chance occurrences and unexpected connections that can lead to innovation. This is currently a hot topic in innovation and the latest research has shown that these chance occurrences (which I will refer to as “serendipity”) can actually be “engineered” to some extent.
Engineering serendipity
So I want to kick-off by giving two examples of what I mean with these serendipitous encounters. I know Starbucks is not present in Namibia, but I trust that most of you are aware of this gigantic global coffee shop franchise. Starbucks originally was a company that sold coffee by the pound and homebrewing equipment. So Howard Schulz, the CEO of Starbucks goes to Milan in Italy for a home-equipment conference and one day he decides not to attend the presentations and expositions, but rather goes for a walk about town where he visits an espresso bar. And he sees something interesting there. A lot of people are drinking espressos, café lattes, stuff like that, and he spends some time in that environment, and he realizes that Starbucks got it all wrong – it’s not about the beans themselves, it’s about this communal experience of drinking coffee, and this is what Starbucks should be all about, and like the saying goes, the rest is history. If Schultz did not decide to ditch the conference and go for a walk about town, would the idea have dawned on him?
Another example is the story of Velcro. In the early 1950s, George de Mestral was returning home after a walk in the countryside in Switzerland, when he noticed that his coat was covered with cockleburs. As he tried to pick them off, he wondered why they were so sticky. He used a microscope to discover that cockleburs are covered with hooks that became embedded in the loops of the fabric of his jacket. His knowledge of the cockleburs spawned the product known as Velcro, a word derived from velvet and crochet. It is important to note that accidental discoveries such as those cited above are not merely the effects of good luck: they are also the result of action, e.g. De Mestral invented Velcro because he was curious about the cockleburs and decided to investigate them. All these accidental discoveries suggest that serendipity involves prepared, curious and open minded people acting on the world and finding some relation of knowledge and material possibility. How do you engineer serendipity? Let me give you some examples. When Yahoo banned its employees from working from home in 2013, the reasons had less to do with productivity than serendipity. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” explained an accompanying memo. The message from new CEO Marissa Mayer was clear: Working solo couldn’t compete with lingering around the coffee machine waiting for inspiration – in the form of a colleague – to strike. Google has commissioned a new campus expressly designed, in the words of its real estate chief, to maximize “casual collisions of the work force.” Rooftop cafés will offer additional opportunities for close encounters, and no employees in the complex will be more than two and a half minutes away from one another. “You can’t schedule innovation,” said David Radcliffe, but you can make introductions.
So, go for a walk, talk to a colleague you don’t usually talk to, do something you’re afraid of, visit a conference or read a magazine totally unrelated to your trade, you never know when innovation will strike….


Next Time
Serendipity is not the result of an isolated moment of accident but of curiosity coupled with organisational determination. Next time I will take a look at the innovation process. I conclude with a quote from Katori Hall: “Serendipity always rewards the prepared”.
Lindsay, G. 2013. Engineering Serendipity. New York Times, 5.
Johansson, F. 2012. The Click Moment: Seizing Opportunity in an Unpredictable World. Penguin: Chicago


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