What exactly is a serendipity architect? I get asked this a lot, and my answer is two-fold depending on how the question is being asked.
First the title is a litmus test for who I’d like to work with. If people look at me sceptically when they ask, then it’s a fairly safe bet that working with that person is going to be difficult (like the time one executive introduced me to an audience as a “self described serendipity architect.”). On the other hand, the people that I like to work with smile when they mention the title, or are simply curious.
Secondly it describes a lot of what I do – keeping abreast of a lot of fast moving areas, discussing interesting developments with people that know these areas well, pulling insights from the mix and then working with leadership teams to understand how they can take advantage of the opportunity. One of the comments I hear during the last phase of this process goes along the lines of “wasn’t it lucky that we…” My response is that this isn’t luck. It’s designed serendipity.
If you want a longer read about how serendipity happens in an online world, Wired magazine published an extract from the book “Smarter Than You Think.” The last paragraph of the extract sums it up nicely:
The birth of Ushahidi is a perfect example of the power of public thinking and multiples. Okolloh could have simply wandered around wishing such a tool existed. Kobia could have wandered around wishing he could use his skills to help Kenya. But because Okolloh was thinking out loud, and because she had an audience of like-minded people, serendipity happened.
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.
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.
It can be quite tricky to involve creative and non-linear thinkers in your organisational structure. Many people that fit in this category prefer to have wide-ranging remits that don’t fit the normal hierarchical structures. Fresh research (indeed it’s work-in-progress) from HBS supports this and sums up it up in the context of distributed innovation:
Many creative problem-solvers will not or simply cannot work effectively under standard employment or supply contracts. That is why distributed innovation in a business ecosystem is such a desirable organizational form.
via Organization Design for Distributed Innovation — HBS Working Knowledge.
A quick link to David Skilling’s excellent post today about the tensions in introducing new ideas to Governments, and the importance of doing so:
After years of observing governments, I have come to the view that one of the most costly features of policy-making is ‘faith-based policy’ in which certain policies become articles of faith and are not subject to serious scrutiny. This can lead to poor outcomes at any time, but particularly in times of disruptive change when new ideas are needed to enable governments to adapt to a changing world. It is the governments that respond flexibly to a changing world that are more likely to sustain strong performance.
via Landfall ✧ On faith-based policy.
This is a great article about what’s good – and what’s bad – about the TED conference. The paragraph that resonated with me the most is also the reason why I will never turn down an invitation to a Foo Camp but inevitably turn down many invitations to conferences:
We live in a world of increasingly networked knowledge. And it’s a world that allows us to appreciate what has always been true: that new ideas are never sprung, fully formed, from the heads of the inventors who articulate them, but are always — always — the result of discourse and interaction and, in the broadest sense, conversation.
via How TED Makes Ideas Smaller – Megan Garber – Technology – The Atlantic.
I missed this article in the New York Times when it came out a couple of weeks ago, but it’s well worth a read for a view on innovation and creativity. The overall theme is that introverts and lone geniuses are often the ones that lead innovation. It also has insights about working environments that lead on from this
Privacy also makes us productive. In a fascinating study known as the Coding War Games, consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers.
Leading on from this article there’s some informed commentary on the formula for innovation at Fast Company where Fabio Sergio from Frog summarises:
The idea that visionary geniuses are best-poised for radical innovation is simply misleading. Maybe Jobs or Steve Wozniak were visionary geniuses working in uninterrupted solitary isolation … when they weren’t busy working crazy-long hours with the rest of their über-talented crews in the cultural cradle of high-tech innovation.
The answer lies in harnessing positive tension. It’s an art that only a group of talented individuals have proven to be capable of mastering.
Both articles are well worth reading, and highlight the complexity around creating a culture of innovation.
UPDATE: Bob Sutton also weighs in on the NYT article with an excellent post here.
The topic of serendipity and technology was raised again recently in The Atlantic, with one writer pointing out that the advent of the GPS on phones, combined with services such as Yelp, increase the filtering process that in turn lessens the chance of accidental discovery:
Everywhere you go these days, people are waving their phones around like dowsing devices, trying to find a place to eat, or a subway stop, or a bookstore. Are they finding them? Yes. My question is, what are they not finding? What serendipitous journeys are they not taking?
via GPS, Smartphones, and the Dumbing Down of Personal Navigation – Technology – The Atlantic Cities.
It’s an interesting segue back to my blog post below which outlines three simple ways to increase serendipity in your life.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
Booz and Co published a study back in October that’s been on my reading list for a while. It’s had an interesting but not surprising conclusion -spending more on R&D won’t drive results. The most crucial factors are strategic alignment and a culture that supports innovation.
To quote the study:
36 percent of all respondents to our survey admitted that their innovation strategy is not well aligned to their company’s overall strategy, and 47 percent said their company’s culture does not support their innovation strategy. Not surprisingly, companies saddled with both poor alignment and poor cultural support perform at a much lower level than well-aligned companies. In fact, companies with both highly aligned cultures and highly aligned innovation strategies have 30 percent higher enterprise value growth and 17 percent higher profit growth than companies with low degrees of alignment.
via The Global Innovation 1000: Why Culture Is Key.