Published 1 year ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Yan Krukov
Serendipity is about potentiality — it’s about connecting the dots. Once we look at the world less in terms of limitations and more in terms of opportunity, perceived liabilities can become assets; and a situation is reframed from one of passivity and powerlessness to one of activity and opportunity.
In today’s VUCA
world, many of the
strategies, tools and mindsets that we developed in the past do not work
anymore. Our tendency to simply plan and map out the future does not do justice
to the complexities and intricacies of many societal and environmental issues.
It requires us to develop a mindset that leverages uncertainty and the unknown
as a pathway to innovation, impact and “smart luck.”
How can we set ourselves up for this “smart luck” and leverage the value in the unexpected?
In our decade-long
on what makes individuals and organizations successful, a clear pattern emerged:
The most successful, inspiring people intuitively “cultivate serendipity” — the
unexpected good luck resulting from unplanned moments in which proactive
decisions lead to positive outcomes. It’s very different from “blind” luck, like
being born into a loving family. Serendipity is “smart luck.” Everyone has
serendipity in their lives in some way — perhaps you found love, your current
job or a recent social innovation idea that way. But successful people have
often (either consciously or subconsciously) done the necessary groundwork to
create the conditions that have brought them more serendipity; they worked hard
to be luckier.
Imagine you unexpectedly learn that farmers in China use your company’s
washing machines to wash their potatoes and it’s causing problems with some
machines. Do you just tell them to not wash their potatoes in it, or do you
connect this information to the fact that many other farmers in China might have
the same problem — and build in a dirt filter to make it a potato washing
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As in this example, serendipity is about making accidents meaningful — but we
can also create more meaningful accidents. How can we do this in our own life?
When you get the dreaded “What do you do?” question, use engaging talking
points — and
sprinkle in different aspects such as, “I recently started practicing xyz; I’m
mostly focused on xzy.” You’ll be surprised how often people will say something
like “What a coincidence, I was just getting into xyz myself — let’s chat!” Such
answers open up conversations that might lead to more meaningful — and often
serendipitous — outcomes. We can seed these talking points into every
conversation, especially also with people we know already.
Instead of asking someone “What do you do?” ask “What did you find most
interesting about xyz?” or “What inspired you to do xyz?” These questions get
people out of their usual autopilot responses and help to open up conversations
that make it easier to find potential dots to connect.
Reflect on your daily meetings and other routine activities. Which ones are
truly necessary? Do they really need the amount of time they are allocated? If
they are under your control, can you restructure them? Getting yourself out of
fixed patterns will help you both experience and notice potential triggers of
serendipity. Even something as small as taking a different route to work or to
your child’s school could do the trick.
Instead of pretending they have it all figured out, the most successful
purpose-driven leaders that we studied have a strategy, but say from the
beginning that “we will adjust that based on new information.” That allows them
to portray strength, but also shows people that they acknowledge that they can’t
know everything. Especially as leaders, telling stories as they were rather than
as we wanted(ed) them to be can be a great way not only to legitimize
serendipity in organizations, but also to build trust with people — nobody
believes a leader who pretends they always have it all figured out.
For example, ask people in routine meetings if they came across something that
surprised them last week. If the answer is yes, does that change their
assumption? Would it be worth digging deeper? Once we incentivize people to
“look out” for the unexpected, we start seeing opportunities where others don’t.
Take the example of post-mortems, or “project funerals.” The idea is that when a
project doesn’t work out, the project manager responsible presents it in front
of project managers from other divisions, and reflects on why it didn’t work.
It’s not about celebrating failure — it’s about celebrating the learning from
what didn’t work. Instead of hiding away things that didn’t work (and thus not
really learning from them or each other), “laying a project to rest” usually
builds trust and often leads to people “connecting the dots.” In one major
materials and nutrition company, for example, a coating for picture frame glass
was unviable for the market. When the team “laid it to rest,” someone in the
audience realized that it appeared to absorb a lot of energy — could it be
useful for solar, he asked? That’s how “serendipitously” the company’s solar
division emerged. Nobody knew in advance that this lucky outcome would happen;
but by creating a practice that allowed people to connect the dots for each
other, it made it more likely for serendipity to occur.
Serendipity is about potentiality — it’s about “seeing” what could be there in
any given moment, connecting the dots. Once we look at the world less in terms
of limitations and more in terms of opportunity, perceived liabilities can
become assets, and a situation is reframed from one of passivity and
powerlessness to one of activity and opportunity. In the spirit of Viktor
Frankl, we cannot always
pick the situation we’re in; but we can always pick our response to it. That’s
where our growth, freedom and serendipity lie.
Published Oct 10, 2022 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Dr. Christian Busch is the bestselling author of 'The Serendipity Mindset: The Art & Science of Creating Good Luck' — a “wise, exciting, and life-changing book” (Arianna Huffington) that provides “excellent practical guidance for all” (Paul Polman, former CEO, Unilever) — and an internationally known expert in the areas of innovation, purpose-driven leadership, and serendipity. He is the director of the CGA Global Economy Program at New York University, and also teaches at the London School of Economics (LSE). Christian is a cofounder of Leaders on Purpose and the Sandbox Network, and a former director of LSE's Innovation Lab. His work has been featured by Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Washington Post, and the BBC. He is a member of the World Economic Forum's Expert Forum, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and on the Thinkers50 Radar list of the 30 thinkers "most likely to shape the future."