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Encouraging Serendipity: the Chance Route to Innovation

Serendipity noun: the occurrence & development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way (Oxford Dictionary Definition)

In his excellent book, Where Good Ideas Come From, one of the seven patterns of innovation Steven Johnson identifies is that of Serendipity – the simple fact that many good ideas come about by happy chance.  Whilst this may be something we are familiar with – whether from our own experience or from stories such as Fleming’s discovery of penicillin or Viagra starting life as an Angina drug that had rather more interesting side effects – the question remains what use is it to the ‘professional’ innovator or agency?

Well, just as legendary golfer Arnold Palmer said, ‘The more i practice, the luckier I get’: so here are a few practices that might help enhance your own chances of a serendipitous outcome:

  • Take a break: Scientists have shown that sleeping on a problem can significantly enhance a subjects problem solving ability. Equally, Johnson shows that simply taking a break – for example going for a walk or having a bath – allows your mind to stop its relentless focus on the problem at task and explore odd and old connections that might have been long overlooked for what he refers to as a ‘delightful feeling of private serendipity: Why didn’t i think of that before?’
  • Stop searching in the obvious place: In today’s world everyone turns to Google for answers and few people make it past the first page of results. So next time you’re searching a topic try out Millionshort.com – this is an experimental search engine (really more of a discovery engine) that lets you REMOVE the top million results: so you’ll come across connections you’d have been highly unlikely to find before (and which few others will have seen either)
  • Chance encounters: when Steve Jobs designed the Pixar building, he put the toilets and the cafe at its centre – inconvenient maybe, but it was designed to foster chance encounters between different employees that might lead to a moment of serendipity. Whilst we can’t always redesign our offices, there are opportunities everyday to have conversations with people we wouldn’t normally talk to; someone from a different department or team, a relation or friend who works in a different field. You’d be surprised by how enlightening it can be to get them talking about a pet topic which you know little about
  • Expand your mind: We all like to build an in depth knowledge, but looking at the world from a new perspective can be a fruitful way of happening upon a new idea. TED talks offer a huge range of riveting talks by experts in their field, so hit the ‘Surprise Me‘ button and watch what comes up – you never know when it might just connect to something useful
  • Variety is the spice of life: most of us live pretty routine lives, and – especially as we get older, busier and more settled – we find it harder and harder to do things that don’t seem to fit into our usual pattern. So make the effort every day to do something that breaks that pattern – read a magazine about a different field of expertise, accept that meeting you don’t think is relevant, even just taking a different route to work – it all adds to your breadth of experience

Finally remember that, as Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind”: the creative spark of an idea rarely presents itself on a platter. You need to have looked at your own innovation challenge from a variety of different perspectives and have clarity on the problem you’re trying to solve as well as a mind full of both raw material.

But if you can match this focus with an openness to new influences and ideas, you will recognise the serendipitous moment when it comes to pass and reap the benefits.

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