Structured serendipity: How Great Ideas Emerge

serendipity for innovationAlmost always great new ideas don’t emerge from within a single person or function, but at the intersection of functions or people that have never met before. As a business leader, you can engineer these connections; serendipity.

Serendipity is the type of word that paralyzes most business leaders because it is a loosey-goosey term that means “let’s see what happens”. Seeing what happens is not what traditional businesses aim to do when developing their strategies. Yet, many of the greatest innovations have sprung from serendipity: Happy accidents that sprung from tinkering, chance encounters that happen because you didn’t plan for something in advance; serendipity happens all the time.

So, what is the easiest way to engineer serendipity?

Two ways: varying what you learn and where you learn it.

Detecting seemingly random concepts is an act of creativity, this doesn’t happen if all you do is talk to the same people you always talk to, read (if at all) the same stuff you always read. It also doesn’t happen if you never visit places you’ve never been to.

A few years back I conceived a mechanism to engineer serendipity for a client: The Lunch Club.

Basically, in almost all organizations most employees always go to lunch with the same people. The Lunch Club aims to change this by setting up colleagues from different departments or with people from outside the organization for lunch; it happens once a week.

The result from these random interactions is new perspectives, new ideas; people who are more aware. When business leaders talk about developing their employees strategic thinking skills, this is one way to do it. There are many other ways to engineer serendipity inside an organization, such as moving from one workspace to another to be with different people, job swapping with colleagues with other departments, etc..

As an individual, I’ve benefited from serendipity more times than I can count; and deliberately try to create serendipity. What do I do to engineer serendipity? I’ve already told you about my practice of talking to someone new every week, learning from their trade and then immediately thinking about how I can use some of those ideas in my craft.

Creativity is about thinking new things, that means making uncommon connections between ideas from other domains. When all you do is talk to the same people, read the same thing over and over again you are moving in a straight line along with everyone else. Parallel lines never cross; serendipity requires diversity.

Bottom line: We should each invest a few hours a week, in reading stuff that has nothing to do with our day jobs, in a setting that has nothing in common with our regular workspaces. That kind of structured serendipity just might help us become more creative, and I doubt that it can hurt.