Six ways to create serendipity at work
Luck plays a part in our lives in some way or another. Perhaps we met an investor through a chance meeting in a coffee shop, or maybe we found our dream job by opening up LinkedIn at the moment it was posted, creating an opportunity to apply before the hiring manager was oversaturated with applications. Or take inventions and innovations: up to 50% are ‘unexpected lucky discoveries’: the microwave, superglue, post-it notes, x-rays and the potato washing machine emerged as the result of accidents or coincidences: one chemical spills into another, cells combine in dirty Petri dishes, or there is a chance encounter between experts whose incidental conversation sparks new insights.
But it’s one thing to make a discovery because of an accidental spill or unexpectedly bump into a potential investor in a coffee shop – but it’s up to us what we do with this unexpected moment. The serendipity trigger is random, but our response is in our control. In contrast to blind luck (like being born into a good family) that just happens to us, serendipity is smart luck that we can influence. Once we realise that serendipity is not just about a coincidence that just happens to us but is actually the process of spotting and connecting the dots, we can start cultivating it.
My decade-long research on leading companies and CEOs, incubators and social enterprises has shown that the world’s most inspiring leaders have, either consciously or subconsciously, laid the foundation for conditions that have brought them such luck – and build a ‘muscle for the unexpected’.
How can we develop this muscle in the context of a hybrid professional environment? In the COVID-driven absence of watercooler moments in the office – unexpected opportunities that emerge over lunch, in the elevator or walking to meetings – how can we spark serendipity?
- Create random virtual collisions: If you are in charge of HR (or a team), you can use practices such as random coffee trials, whereby you randomly match people across the organisation for a quick virtual coffee. It can be facilitated with an inspiring prompt (eg what challenge are you currently facing in the organisation/how can I help?), and usually not only leads to recreating watercooler moment serendipity, but also helps develop a deeper sense of belonging towards the company.
- Set serendipity hooks: Whenever you communicate with someone, cast a few serendipity hooks – concrete examples of your current interests and objectives. This maximises the chance that you and the other person (coincidentally) latch on to common ground and shared passions – triggering serendipity.
- Ask questions differently: Imagine meeting a new person at a (virtual) event. Many of us might go on autopilot and ask the dreaded “so what do you do?” This tends to put the other person into a box that is hard to get out of. Positioning ourselves for smart luck means asking more open-ended questions like “what do you find most interesting about the project you’re working on?” or “what brings you here?” Such questions open up conversations that might lead to intriguing – and often serendipitous – outcomes.
- Practise the art of reframing: Accepting imperfection as part of life allows us to more easily reframe situations so that where others might see a problem (say, unexpected budget constraints), you see an opportunity (making the best out of whatever resources are at hand), thus allowing more creative outcomes to emerge. That’s also where rituals such as ‘postmortems’ or ‘project funerals’ come in, where people openly and frequently talk about ideas that did not work out. Importantly, this is not about celebrating failure – it’s about celebrating the learning that comes from unexpected places. Oftentimes serendipity happens when people ‘coincidentally’ realise that an idea that didn’t work in one context might work in another.
- Enable serendipity spotting: Alertness is crucial to notice unexpected events and turn them into innovation. Some companies have integrated practices such as asking team members in the weekly meeting if they came across something surprising last week and, if so, did it change their assumptions? But if we want our employees to come up with new insights or ideas we need to de-risk the process of voicing them. We can learn from companies such as Pixar, where, in meetings, executives highlighted that most ideas are bad at the beginning. Then, ‘imperfect’ ideas, solutions or processes are used as ways of continuous learning.
- Leverage technology: Take steps to use technology to your advantage in order to expand your opportunities. This may mean writing speculative emails to people you admire or inviting someone in a different department or function to coffee or a video call. You can plant serendipity bombs, with the end goal being to engage in unexpected conversations that subsequently increase the chances you can connect the dots to an exciting opportunity.
Professor Dr Christian Busch, pictured below, teaches at New York University and at the London School of Economics, co-founded Leaders on Purpose and Sandbox Network and is the author of Connect the Dots: The Art & Science of Creating Good Luck