Harnessing serendipity in the workplace is about more than facilitating the unexpected

What if your company had a great and more frequent ability to discover more valuable things than those for which it were usually looking? How would you then begin to describe your company’s overall level of awareness and sagacity? Does it make your company ’feel lucky’? Inspiring questions and understanding serendipity might give some answers to these and other questions. One of the challenges in answering them lies in the nebulous idea of serendipity in the first place. In many respects the idea of serendipity carries with it a mystical undercurrent and even researchers do not agree about a precise definition. However, serendipity is never a ’happy accident’, it’s much, much more than that. The key elements in the process of serendipity include: 1) a prepared mind 2) an unexpected event, encounter, result or contradiction 3) insight and 4) value creation. Not only is serendipity a process, but it is also a quality of mind.

Here we like to refer to the original definition coined by Horace Walpole and further elaborated by Robert K. Merton in his book The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: ”Serendipity is a quality of mind, which through awareness, sagacity and good fortune allows one frequently to discover valuable things while seeking something else.”

This will lead us to new and inspiring territories. Is it possible to build communities and even companies with serendipitous quality of mind? How can we improve the capabilities in our communities and companies in this respect? Are there ways to increase awareness, to harvest sagacity and to find good fortune in organizational settings?

In the global business world great insights are rare and therefore extremely valuable. The competitive edge may sometimes be based only on one insight, which is successfully elaborated. Following the original definition by Walpole, serendipity is something unexpected or odd – event, results, encounter or situation/context – that triggers insight. Insight is the key element of serendipity and having an insight may eventually lead to value creation.

To understand the potential of this approach in organizational settings, we may refer to Gary Klein’s book “Seeing What Others Don’t – The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights“. His previous books are about decision making, but in this new book Klein for the first time analyzes the ways we gain insights. He does that by studying real-life cases, not those clinical cases happening in the laboratory settings. And the key finding is fascinating, as Klein verbalizes it: ”Intuition is the use of patterns you have already learned, whereas insight is the discovery of new patterns.”.

Based on that statement it’s intriguing to compare serendipity and ’zemblanity’ – the opposite of serendipity. Zemblanity is according to William Boyd the ability of “making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries occurring by design”. Sounds like a traditional innovation process in a company, doesn’t it? So, let’s go for serendipity management instead!

According to Gary Klein insight will be triggered by five factors:
– Connections
– Coincidence
– Curiosity
– Contradiction
– Creative Desperation

Most of these factors are identified also in the process of serendipity, creative desperation being the only one not having a direct serendipitous reasoning. Unexpected connections of ideas and people are in the core of this issue, most cases are strongly related to this factor. Coincidences and curiosity are also often present when something serendipitous happens. But the notion of contradiction in this context is a kind of insight itself! Instead of having an open mind, it sometimes pays off to have a suspicious mind.

There are ways to harness serendipity in organizational contexts. We have identified three main areas: 1) physical workspace design 2) virtual collaboration platforms 3) team building. To successfully implement these factors a certain ’extended enterprise’ thinking and a willingness to introduce ’intrapreneurship’ programs are required.

Physical workspace design out of these have not much academic serendipity research, where to refer. Yet, there are a quite a few practical examples starting from Pixar and up to Apple’s new headquarters, where the design aims at increasing the unexpected encounters of diverse people. However this is only one single element of serendipity, we like to call it ’coincidensity’, following Matt Biddulph who coined the term and Stowe Boyd, who uses it extensively. Coincidensity refers to the drive of increasing diversity and social density – but coincidence alone does not guarantee serendipity. So, physical workspace design has to include to design requirements also other elements of serendipity – the support for finding insight and the ability to create value.

The same applies also to virtual collaboration platforms and social media. They facilitate in great extent the ’coincidensity’ factor, but how useful they are in supporting finding insight… The team building activities have certainly a huge potential of mixing extended enterprise approach and serendipity management principles. In that respect new openings are welcome, also solutions that allow the emergence of ’devil’s advocates’.

Image: Archimedes has his Eureka moment, from a 16th Century engraving. 


ilkka-kakkoIlkka Kakko is a workplace expert and consultant based in Finland. He is head of the consultancy Karostech and author of “Oasis Way: Respect Serendipity to Thrive in the Postnormal Era”