Serendipity is the making of a fortunate discovery by accident, which relates very directly to innovation, which is related to creativity. This episode explores serendipity and how you can take advantage of it personally and within your organization.
When we encounter something unexpected or unintended, our natural first instinct is to assume we did something wrong. We’ll ignore the unexpected occurrence, and repeat the experiment or test looking for our preconceived intended results. This must be recognized and resisted.The unexpected, unintended event may be perceived as a failure of some sort, but from that failure, a different or more nuanced opportunity may become apparent and success follow from that. Failure, accidents, and unintended variations are an important aspect to innovation and success.
For serendipity, we’re looking for:
- A surprising mental association; an association between ideas we wouldn’t have thought of if it weren’t for the unexpected occurrence.
- Achieving a desired objective in a surprising way, in a way we weren’t intending to.
- Something useful when we were looking for something else.
Part of serendipity is luck. We can be more lucky by:
- Being more observant.
- Improving our Interpersonal Intelligence.
- Asking for things we might not have asked for before.
- Don’t think of a failure as a failure, but rather as an opportunity.
When encountering a failure, accident, or unintended variation, to take advantage of serendipity:
- Reconsider your assumptions. Maybe the experiment didn’t fail, but the assumptions behind the experiment are wrong.
- Use someone as a sounding board. Frequently trying to clearly explain something to someone else actually helps us to better understand what the issue is and to gain insight into it.
- Discuss the issue with others in your field. This may provide additional questions for you to consider or avenues to pursue to gain a better understanding.
- Use diversity to get different perspectives on the issue. Maybe this will lead to the use of different metaphors describing the problem and thereby lead to an innovative solution.
- Try not to filter out any of the information that contradicts your preconceptions.
For an organization to take advantage of serendipity, it should hire creative people and give them new, unexpected assignments; expose them to diverse experiences and new ideas; encourage them to keep an open mind, to not dismiss their so-called failures, and to keep an eye out for accidents and unintended results of all types. Organizations should encourage risk taking and take steps to lower the cost of experimentation and invention.
References used in this episode:
- How to Make Your Own Luck
- Be Lucky – it’s an easy skill to learn
- Are You Lucky?
- Wall Street Journal Article on Innovation: Oops! Accidents lead to innovations. So, how do you create more accidents?
- Jeff Bezos on the importance of failure on entrepreneurial growth. James Dyson of the Dyson vacuum cleaner also emphasized the importance of failure on innovation in a July 7, 2008, Fortune Magazine article.
- Wired Magazine articles on How To Fail.
- Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by Jim Collins and Jerry L. Porras.
- The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell.