Serendipity: A Critical Innovation Success Factor

by Erica Driver.

As part of the run-up to the Business Innovation Factory summit (BIF-3) currently going on in Providence, Rhode Island, attendees participated in an online social network. On the social networking site, the most common one-word answers to the question “What are 5 keys to innovation?” were rolled up into a tag cloud (see figure). Keys_to_collaboration_101007 Words that rose to the top of the list included creativity, collaboration, and passion. These are all good.

But as I sit in the back of the theater listening to the storytellers (they each get 15 minutes of stage time to share experiences they’ve had with innovation or to participate in a short interview) I realize we missed something big: serendipity — fed by sheer dumb luck. According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, serendipity is the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought after. And luck is a force that brings good fortune or adversity, or the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual. Luck, when good, can lead to serendipitous events and encounters. A couple of BIF storytellers shared some insights into and examples of the role of serendipity in innovation:

  • “ . . . But we’re watching Seabiscuit!” said author Steven Johnson’s wife when he returned from the movie theater lobby to tell her he had just come up with the idea for his next book. Johnson, now author of five books, knew he wanted to next write a book about an idea that had a good story behind it, he just didn’t know what idea to write about. He was at the movies with wife watching Seabiscuit when the book idea came to him.  Perhaps it was the movie’s imagery of injury and resurrection, or who knows what other brain synapses were going off. But suddenly the story of the worst cholera outbreak in 19th century London came to mind and the book The Ghost Map was born. The Ghost Map was published has was recently selected as one of two runners-up for the National Academies of Science 2007 Communications Award.
  • "Luck is the number one success factor in business and life."  These words from the mouth of Eric Bonabeau, CEO and Chief Scientific Officer of Icosystem and author of the book Swarm Intelligence.  I couldn’t agree with him more. So many potentially game-changing ideas have gone by the wayside despite passion, perseverance, and plenty of communication and collaboration. It’s for reasons like the market wasn’t ready, something else was going on at the same time that took peoples’ attention away, or someone else with a competitive idea had a better network of contacts at the time.

Without those serendipitous moments, a person's ability to innovate is limited. One random encounter, as Eric Bonabeau said today during his time on stage, changes you and leads you to the next encounter. The question I see many information and knowledge management professionals wrestling with -- and trying to address with collaboration and knowledge management strategies and collaboration tools like social networking, expertise location, and virtual worlds: How can you increase the odds of chance encounters being the next encounter being a good one and leading to fantastic innovation? Or, on a bigger scale, how can you create a company culture where the workforce experiences more occurrences of happy accidents? This very question should be at the heart of many organizations' enterprise collaboration strategies.



re: Serendipity: A Critical Innovation Success Factor

This is an important point that is often overlooked in business and social circles: not all good (or bad) events can be planned for or predicted. In my experience as an inventor and business operator, some of the most powerful discoveries are made accidentally. Good ideas are more common that many might think, but successful implementation of those good ideas is uncommon at best, and anyone who is prepared to take advantage of a lucky event is more likely to succeed.There are a number of common quotes that illustrate our visceral understanding of the luck / opportunity concept. Louis Pasteur's "In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind," but my favorite is more modern version: "better lucky than good." We can't leave it there, of course, for, to paraphrase another, fortune favors the prepared mind.It may not be surprising that this didn't show up in a survey of keys to innovation, because lucky breaks can't be engineered, and business managers can't take full credit. Nonetheless, these ideas will be taken into account by good business people, even if they can't be quantified.

re: Serendipity: A Critical Innovation Success Factor

Hi Sam,You are right on. In fact Eric Bonabeau did talk about this in his storytelling -- he even used the very same Louis Pasteur quote "chance favors the prepared mind." We can increase our chances of the serendipitous event occurring by trying to formulate an image of what we want, getting out into the world, and meeting new people and taking action.Erica