The power of serendipity

I’m often asked what my job title is, and my standard reply is that I don’t have one.  If pushed however I use the term ‘serendipity architect.’  Mentioning this phrase is usually a good indicator of  the mindset of the person I’m talking to – if they’re open and want to know what the title means, I’m more likely to enjoy working with them.

Some people are dismissive of the term. In my experience those people are likely to be highly operational, and not the type of people that cope well with the inherent ambiguity of long term thinking and the connections to strategy and innovation.

The power of serendipity is acknowledged occasionally in the mainstream business media, like this recent example in McKinsey online:

Serendipity involves stumbling over something unusual, and then having the foresight or perspective to capitalize on it. What makes that such an attractive story? It’s the juxtaposition of seemingly independent things. In a serendipitous flash, one recent winner, an engineering firm, realized that the gear it designed for scallop trawlers could also be used to recover hard-to-get-at material in nuclear-waste pools. Surprising connections such as these set off a chain of events that culminate in a commercial opportunity. So to build this story line, think about the quirky combination of ideas that got you started and remember that serendipity is not the same as chance—you were wise enough, when something surprising happened, to see its potential.

By the way, the entire article is a good read…

Insights from different sectors

I  encourage to people to mix in areas that are outside their knowledge domain, and to keep an open mind when they do so.  The reason for this is because insights often happen not when you’re looking harder at a challenge, but when you take a step back and look around to see how others have approached analogous challenges.  The January 2014 issue of Wired has an article about a doctor seeking different ways of treating cancer, and it makes for an interesting read on it’s own.  However the part that got my attention was the following when he explained where he found new directions for his thinking:

The second moment occurred five years later, at the Aspen Ideas Festival. There Agus met the famed physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who had won the Nobel Prize in 1969 for his work on the theory of elemental particles. Talking to Gell-Mann crystallized the ideas that Leaf’s article had set in motion. “My ‘Aha!’ moment came when he talked about the complex systems he confronted in physics and how he would go about trying to build models,” Agus wrote in The End of Illness. Physicists were able to build theoretical models of things they still didn’t completely understand and make discoveries using those models. Why hadn’t doctors approached medicine like this? he wondered.

It’s a great example of looking outside to go deeper inside.

TED needs competition?

I like TED, and the talks that it spreads freely.  Friends have spoken at the conference, and come away waxing lyrical about the off-stage interactions, the meeting of minds and the thinking that results.  However I can’t help thinking that there’s something beyond TED that’s not focussed on North America and Europe, and not stuck in the old-style broadcast paradigm.  Some of this is encapsulated in a post I was referred to (thanks Twitter):

Can a new wave of technology thinkers produce a fresh outlet for smart ideas not (yet) co-opted as badly as TED? If so, it won’t come from the well-financed centers of Silicon Valley but from the margins, the actual cutting edge.

via Against TED – The New Inquiry.

In Seach of serendipity – article from The Economist

Ian Leslie has penned a lovely piece for Intelligent Life about serendipity, and why it matters in the digital age.  As a serendipity architect it’s tempting to repost the entire piece, but I’ve pulled the highlights out below:

Google can answer almost anything you ask it, but it can’t tell you what you ought to be asking. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Centre for Civic Media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a long-time evangelist for the internet, points out that it doesn’t match the ability of the printed media to bring you information you didn’t know you wanted to know. He calls the front page of a newspaper a “discovery engine”: the lead story tells you something you’re almost certain to be interested in—the imminent collapse of the global economy, or Lady Gaga’s latest choice of outfit—and elsewhere on the page you learn that revolution has broken out in a country of whose existence you were barely aware. Editors with an eye for such things, what Zuckerman calls “curators”, are being superseded by “friends”—people like you, who probably already share your interests and world view—delivered by Facebook. Twitter is better at leading us to the interests of people beyond our social circle, but our tendency to associate with others who think in similar ways—what sociologists call our “value homophily”—means most of us end up with a feed that feels like an extended dinner party.


…But when everyone can get the same information in more or less the same way, it becomes harder to be original; innovation thrives on the serendipitous collision of ideas. Zuckerman told me about a speech on serendipity he recently gave to an audience of investment managers. As he started on his theme he feared he might lose their attention, but he was pleasantly surprised to find that they hung on every word. It soon became clear why. “In finance, everyone reads Bloomberg, so everyone sees the same information.” Zuckerman said. “What they’re looking for are strategies for finding inspiration from outside the information orbit.”

(via IN SEARCH OF SERENDIPITY | More Intelligent Life.)

So what should you learn from this?  Here’s my top three ways to create serendipity:

  1. Browse the magazine rack at airports or train stations before you’re taking a journey.  Pull out a couple of magazines that you’d never normally read and browse them cover to cover.  Seek out articles/photos or advertisements that could have some relevance to your interests or work.  You’d be surprised what can come out of this simple exercise.
  2. Change the route you take to work each day.  Look for items of interest along the way  – I find that seeking novelty often sparks new ways of thinking.
  3. Mingle at parties. Network at functions.  Start conversations with anyone and everyone.  My preferred technique for doing this starts with looking for the odd person out.  If you’re at an unconference and everyone is wearing jeans and t-shirts, start talking to the guy who came dressed in a suit (this is based on an actual situation where I got totally drawn in to a conversation about religion 2.0).  If everyone is dressed in a suit, talk to the guy in the jeans.

What’s your best tip for creating serendipity?

Video – in praise of innovation constraints

In Switzerland a tiny village of 80 people spent just CHF10,000 and gained over CHF2.4million of media exposure from a very simple marketing campaign.  I love this story as it shows that you don’t need to spend the bank in order to get great results – often it’s the reverse.  Limited resources force you to think more creatively and the results can far exceed what you’d create if you had an unlimited budget.  Enjoy the video…

Jung von Matt/Limmat: Obermutten. A little village goes global. – YouTube.

Smashing paradigms (Wired Article)

When someone challenges existing paradigms, it’s all to easy to scoff. My favourite paradigm smasher was Columbus.  Prior to his epic adventure, everyone knew the world was flat – what else could it be?  Now the world is round – what else could it be?

A more recent example of paradigm smashing was profiled in this wonderful article in Wired.  It’s the story of the invention of a craft that was presumed to be impossible:

Since Cavallaro first proposed Blackbird’s design on the Internet, his concept has been ridiculed and lampooned in blogs and forums, and the idea has even been refuted in a national magazine. The debate recently reached a fever pitch among a certain type of geek, especially in Silicon Valley, so much so that some notable entrepreneurs, including Google’s Larry Page, forked over the cash to let Cavallaro finally build the vehicle. After four years of online arguments, explanations, and insults, Cavallaro has brought his vision here—to the Dirt Cup—to prove he can beat the wind.

via One Man’s Quest to Outrace Wind | Magazine.

Transforming healthcare in Peru

From the HBR comes an inspiring piece about creating a healthcare system that is designed from the ground up:

One, building a hospital is time consuming — it takes around four years in South America — and is capital-intensive. The HDS team decided to eliminate this step and set up the facility in the shells of 23 old buses that were waiting to be disposed off by the city administration. It took just four months to clean out the buses and equip them with water, electricity, drainage, air conditioning, and medical equipment. The hospital has operating rooms, clinical laboratories, a pharmacy, and provides an array of services, from diagnostics to surgery.

Two, instead of investing in equipment, the founding team invited doctors to buy equipment that they could own, use, and maintain. As many as 360 doctors agreed to do so in order to help the sick in their city, and became investors in the hospital.

Three, hospitals usually offer services from fixed locations. The HDS team came up with a modular design that make it easy to move parts of the facility to where the demand is. Medical teams drive to the poorest places in Lima, starting at 8 a.m., and finish after they have seen the last waiting patient.

Finally, most hospitals decide which doctors attend to which patient. The HDS team changed this, allowing patients to choose the physician, the day, and the treatment time so they could act on the recommendations of friends and relatives.

via Peru’s Innovation Drive – Alejandro Ruelas-Gossi – The Conversation – Harvard Business Review.

Foresight in the 1600s

There is a wonderful story floating around about foresight in the 1300s. Stewart Brand captures it nicely in this video. The story is summed up on the website of New College as follows:

…when the college fellows decided to restore the hall roof in 1862, they were wondering where to get the oak for the beams in the new roof Gilbert Scott proposed to build for them. The college woodsman pointed out that their predecessors had planted acorns in their Buckinghamshire woods in about 1380, so that mature trees would be available when needed for the repair of the buildings.

It is a great story that encapsulates foresight before a time when the phrase existed.  The problem is that it’s not true. The archive of the New College website refutes it in several ways.

However the general theme of the story has historical merit and  on this site there was mention that “oaks in the New Forest (in the UK) are a battleship factory.” This led me to some further research.  It turns out that this has much more substance to it as referenced on the history of the New Forest here:

1698 Enclosure Act “For the Increase and Preservation of Timber in the New Forest” : William III needed timber for the Navy. The Act permitted immediate planting of 2,000 acres, and a further 200 acres/annum for 20 years. In 1776 under George III a further 2,044 acres were planted.

However the foresight behind the continued planting of oaks was flawed and failed to take into account a technology development : iron ships.  This development in ship building meant that oaks were no longer in demand.

In an ironic twist however in World War II some oaks from the forest were used to build minesweepers as wooden hulls would not cause magnetic mines to detonate when the ship passed overhead.

The Yes Men do it again – newspapers from the future

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a great fan of creating fake newspaper front pages from the future.  They are very effective at positioning people to think differently about how the future could be, and what decisions lie ahead.

Last week, The Yes Men did it again, and printed a fake IHT from December 19th 2009 to illustrate the decisions facing the Copenhagen Climate conference.  Read all about it here.