Hannah Pearson
By on February 15, 2014 in Career
Read time: 8 minutes | 2 Comments

Make serendipity your most valuable asset

Serendipity was the new buzzword for startups and the tech industry as a whole last year.

The architecture of the Google campus, Mountview, is famously designed to create an environment that enforces collisions between staff. The CEO of Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer famously banned home working for employees, explaining that, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”

Tony Hseih, CEO of the super successful shoes company, Zappos, is of the same mindset. He’s not only created offices that are intentionally inconvenient so that staff are forced to interact, but he’s also bringing that spirit into his rejuvenation of the Downtown Project in Las Vegas. His aim is to institutionalize [a] return on luck, by placing coworking spaces, startup offices, small businesses and local festivals all in one place and enable ‘collisions’ and ‘serendipitous encounters’ between them all.

If so many big companies are clutching tightly to serendipity as the golden ticket to innovation and success, how can we get in on the action?

What is serendipity, actually?

The word was coined back in 1754 by a British writer, Walpole, but is still regularly voted as one of the top ten hardest words to translate of the English language.

The word came from an Italian tale, which in turn, came from a Persian fairy tale, the Princes of Serendip (Serendip being modern-day Sri Lanka). It goes along these lines:

The King of Serendip had three sons but worried that the princes weren’t fit for power, so he feigned anger and banished them from the kingdom.

As the princes travelled on their long journey, they noticed traces that they presumed a camel had left behind on the road. The princes arrived at a tavern late one evening, only to find a merchant bemoaning the loss of one of his camels. The eldest prince happened to mention that they had seen traces of a camel on that very same road, and described it precisely: it was lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other.

Naturally enough, the merchant was pretty suspicious that the princes could describe the camel without even seeing it, and hauled them in front of the Emperor – I think I’d have done the same myself, to be honest.

The princes explained exactly how they knew what the camel looked like: grass had been eaten from the side of the road where it was less green, so they knew that the camel must have been blind on the other side. There were clumps of grass around the same size as a camel’s tooth along the way, so they thought that it was also missing a tooth. The tracks showed only three feet, the fourth being dragged, showing the camel was lame. And butter was clearly carried on one side because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road, and flies to the spilled honey on the other.

Finally – and wait for it, this is the gross part – they knew that a pregnant woman must be riding the camel as they saw both a footprint near the camel’s tracks and traces of urine which they bent down to smell (what drove them to do that, I just don’t understand…). From that, they just knew it was a woman’s foot and that she was pregnant because there were hand prints, which showed that she helped herself back up after urinating.

The Emperor was convinced and the princes set out from court and lived to tell another tale  – hopefully this time without the urine.

The whole story goes to show what Walpole considered serendipitous: strokes of unexpected circumstances and the wisdom to know how to put these observations together to know exactly what the camel was carrying and looked like. The princes succeeded in combining an accident of observations into something much more meaningful through sagacity. Saving their lives.

If you’re not a Prince in Serendip, there are still plenty of serendipitous events out there that we all experience: we wouldn’t be eating wheaties or cornflakes today if the Kelloggs brothers hadn’t accidentally left cooked wheat out in the sun and tried to roll the mass, creating a flaky substance. You can chew that fact over your next breakfast bowl of cereal.

Can serendipity be engineered?

Since the concept of serendipity was ‘invented’, there have been plenty of studies into whether serendipity can actually be engineered, or if the concept of engineering serendipity is in fact an oxymoron.

Dr Stephann Makri from UCL is directing a research project on that exact problem, with an aim to develop an app that can simulate and stimulate serendipity. He boils serendipity as a process down to three key actions:

  1. The circumstances need to be unexpected
  2. There needs to be an ah ha moment, as he aptly puts it and
  3. There needs to be a valuable outcome

The tale of the Princes of Serendip covers all those bases: (1) unexpectedly meeting the merchant who is the owner of the camel, (2) knowing what the traces along the side of the road signify and (3) saving their own skins.

Serendipity space

Serendipity is inherently subjective: I may consider the Kelloggs brothers’ discovery to be quite serendipitous, but you may think it’s rather run of the mill (pun intended). Researchers have boiled it down to four different different types of situations that people consider serendipitous:

  1. Blind luck – when you walk past a bookshelf, the book that is key to your work that you never knew existed, falls off the shelf for no reason. A lot of people wouldn’t consider this necessarily to be serendipity.
  2. Happy accidents – when unconnected events impinge on what you’re currently doing. So you’re eating in your usual restaurant when you get chatting to someone on the table next to you who happens to be a world expert in what you’re doing. Or why you’re eating that bowl of cornflakes. It’s probably the most common situation that people think of when serendipity is mentioned.
  3. Prepared mind – when new relationships are perceived due to many different facts you have been exposed to. So you come across that book in the library because you’ve read a lot of books on the same subject and have a feeling that it might be there and pivotal to what you’re doing. This situation is seen as less unexpected, so some may again not really consider it to be serendipitous.
  4. Individual – when you rely on precise, specialist knowledge. So you realise, as you’re knitting, that the way in which the loops of wool are structured around the knitting needles would be perfect for that architectural design you’ve been working on. The two skills – architecture and knitting – are completely unrelated, and it is only because  that you are skilled in both that you can make the connection. That one’s probably the furthest removed from what many people consider serendipity, but, nevertheless, it happens.

Instead of rating these categories as more serendipitous than another, for as we’ve seen, one man’s serendipity is another’s blind luck, the term serendipity space was coined. These four different types of situations just represent the axes of that multidimensional space in which serendipity takes place. There is no straight answer if an event is serendipitous encounter or not.

Serendipity doesn’t happen alone

What the thinking behind Google, Yahoo! and Zappos plan to increase collisions really highlights is that serendipity doesn’t often come along alone, unprompted, but is usually part of a bigger picture. The same NYT article that told us serendipity is the new buzzword also made it clear that serendipity is “largely a by-product of social networks”. Not just online social networks but in real life as well.

Which brings us neatly to networking theory (stay with me here, I’m not going to get too techy on you). A well-known researcher on networks, Ronald Burt, released a paper back in 2004: ‘Structural holes and good ideas’. The premise? That in companies, information is often arranged in clusters of people, who then don’t share any valuable information gleaned with other groups.

Sound familiar? Think about your own workplace – most of it operates in silos, right? The marketers have the marketing knowledge. The salespeople have the sales knowledge. The engineers have the technical knowledge. Which works – to a certain extent. However, it certainly doesn’t help to innovate.

Mind the gap

The information broker has the most valuable role in the company, points out Burt. That gal spans the gap between the two groups and passes on valuable information learned from one group to another, thereby leading the new group to improve their own processes faster with information that otherwise would have been unknown to them.

The gap in between these groups is ‘le vide’, a term coined by Fortou, a similar researcher. A literal translation from French is ‘the emptiness’, but I prefer to think of it as a yawning chasm. And what can fill this endless expanse of black? Serendipity space.

People close to the edge of le vide are more at risk: of having good ideas. And if you’re the one spanning the bridge between these clusters, you’re likely to have more Zappos-type ‘collisions and serendipitous encounters’ with others. All this sounds rather dangerous. But the real danger you’ll run into, according to Burt, is seeing information and solutions sooner, being promoted faster, getting bigger pay rises and being seen as more valuable as your social capital grows. I would take that risk.

Is serendipity the next essential skill for your CV?

Perhaps the idea of engineering serendipity isn’t an oxymoron, after all. It can be created, so long as you are in the right place and approach groups and ideas with an open mind. The Harvard Business Review blog even goes so far as to comment that, as it goes hand in hand with creativity, serendipity is a “capability that can be cultivated, bought and sold”. And if Harvard Business School is saying that, then we can’t put it down to a touchy-feely startup culture, can we?

If you follow that logic through, it could be the next skill to write on your resume: an ability to create a high return on serendipity. Who wouldn’t want to hire someone who could make links between disparate groups and ideas to create new synergies, who goes out of their way to meet new people with an open mind and who has the sagacity to realise the serendipitous moment as it happens to them and use that to benefit the company?

Creating a recipe for serendipity

Thinking about past serendipitous experiences can mean you will have more of them in the future. As you reflect on the experiences, ask yourself “what might have made this experience more or less serendipitous?”

Once you’ve recognised what could have made it more serendipitous, you can create your own recipe for serendipity and become more aware of it when it is happening. You can learn how to take advantage of it faster each time. You can make it an even more valuable experience.

You can live your own Alice in Wonderland experience, with one incredible happy accident leading to another and in its turn, setting off another and another, until you have forged an unbreakable chain of serendipitous encounters that you can take full advantage of, both personally and professionally.

A quote from the School of Life perfectly sums up how to create serendipity: “Successful optimists are serendipity engineers. They find ways to smash themselves (and others) into new ideas – exposing themselves to different thoughts, philosophies and approaches.” In other words, bridging that gap over le vide.

A serendipity engineer – you never know, that might just become the next career move everyone wants to make. I certainly do.