Serendipity in Innovation: Pure Chance or Can it be Encouraged?

Posted by jartese on Nov 1, 2013 11:48:08 AM

Innovation by Chance?

The impact of serendipity -- making fortunate discoveries by accident -- on innovation has lately become a source of discussion. The unintended consequences generated by interactions among talented individuals meeting unexpectedly has long been cited as a means to equally unforeseen originality and resourcefulness. Yet, the dynamic and productive aspects of serendipity have until recently generally been overlooked in the organizational context, regarded as inconsistent and thus unreliable.

Even Today ... The Question Remains

Even today, organizations frequently implement strategies and operational-processes primarily based upon past performance, innovation is discouraged. Businesses in particular can restrict creative processes by emphasizing internal cultural restrictions to corporate thinking, which limits development of innovative solutions to enterprise or societal problems. This is changing; the development of the global economy has open-sourced innovation, introducing literally millions of new agents into creative processes.

But, the question remains, is serendipity in innovation always the result of pure chance or can it be encouraged? There seems to be some evidence that proximity of people and ideas promotes the kind of.

Development of Fortunate Chance

The fact that chance events occur does not mean their outcomes can be controlled, or rendered serendipitous. Innovation requires individuals sufficiently aware to recognize a discovery when it emerges, and to subsequently apply it to something useful. Development of fortunate chance depends largely upon the seemingly random process of luck, and channeling its energies to create value from the unexpected confluence of people and ideas. The serendipitous events that arise coincidentally are beyond any formula to generate their re-emergence. However, it does seem possible to create environments where people may interact without any prior suggestion they might meet at that particular moment. Both logic and evidence suggest innovations can be a consequence of these encounters.

To generate innovative interactions, organizations must be sufficiently perceptive to ensure their agents of creativity  – regardless of their fields of expertise or activity – have the opportunity to meet on occasion throughout the course of the day. These informal meetings might occur on the corporate campus, in the break-room, in the parking lot, conference hall, or in the cafeteria during lunch. Their proximity to each other might then lead to a respectful familiarity and subsequent exchange of ideas caused by the constructive synergy of their interaction.

And it seems to be true that moments of serendipity develop most frequently from face-to-face interactions. Building  trust-based relationships with a diversity of employees from various departments causes sufficient dissimilarity among workers that their ideas can combine in unanticipated ways, leading to the sometimes bewildering juxtapositions of knowledge and speculation that can engender innovation. The proximity of edge-participants, those whose informational and experiential skills are exceptional in comparison to the organizational mainstream, add to group-interactivity elements of discontinuity sufficient to re-focus customary responses to produce something new.

Neither serendipitous moments nor innovation will result from all these encounters, nor probably from very many. However, the emergence of an arena of contact, wherein conversations and discussion cause participants to create knowledge through their exchange of opinions and insights stimulates the cognitive ecosystem that gives birth to innovation. Development of a more fluid working environment encourages internal open-sourcing, promoting unexpected advantages or benefits for workers, their departments and the and the organization.

Diversity of Thought

The whole idea of edge-participants is fueled by diversity.  A common open innovation concept is that more innovation occurs when you have diverse minds with diverse skill sets, experiences and creativity.  This diversity occurs on many levels.  Different areas of expertise on a product team can be leveraged – for example front end and backend developers live in totally different worlds but their skillsets may complement each other.  The next level is within the organization.  A very common occurrence today is marketing playing a huge role in product development.  The emergence of big data and social media allows for marketing data to drive product direction.  Finally organizations can leverage diversity from a global scale.  Engineers for a company in India may have a different skill set that complements the team in the United States.  Furthermore teams can leverage skills and thoughts from outside the organization by embracing crowdsourcing.  Companies like Samsung are creating serendipity not by waiting for accidents with innovative outcomes to occur but by encouraging the crowd to discover new uses for its existing technology.


Serendipity cannot be manufactured or predicted, but it can be encouraged by creating an organizational space that favors informal collaboration among individuals of disparate backgrounds. Simply meeting together may be sufficient to develop a serendipitous moment, even if its occurrence is not the result of pure chance. The key is to encourage internal collaboration. This requires the adoption of a more open startup-like culture. It also requires the adoption of tools that facilitate discussion, collaboration and problem solving. Companies should not rely on serendipity without putting effort into promoting these occurrences. With the proper culture in place serendipity can become a more common source of innovation and not just unexpected random accidents.


Topics: Innovation Insights

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