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Cultivating Serendipity for Innovation, Impact and ‘Smart Luck’

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?

Cultivating serendipity

In our decade-long research 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 machine?

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?

1. Setting hooks

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.

2. Asking questions differently

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.

3. Breaking the routine

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.

How can leaders cultivate serendipity in their organization?

1. Combining a sense of direction with a readiness for the unexpected

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.

2. Incentivizing people to spot serendipity triggers

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.

3. Facilitating an environment of trust and psychological safety, which allows for creativity and cross-pollination

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.