Sometimes the best ideas and discoveries happen by coincidence. That’s fate and has a stylish name: “serendipity.” It brought us medical wonders: X‑rays, aspirin, insulin, penicillin, antihistamines, and the smallpox vaccine. And things we can’t imagine life without Teflon, Velcro, nylon, and Post-It notes. Serendipity is the ability to make accidental but lucky discoveries, often while looking for something unrelated.
With the rise of infotech and biotech, serendipity will be essential. In the past, companies had to invest vast amounts of money in IT upfront: software, servers, and networks. Today, we can start relatively small with cloud-enabled building blocks and consumer-graded technology, such as sensors, drones, and robots. There are two notions behind serendipity: 1) the chance (a set of fortuitous conditions often enabled by digital technologies) and b) the ability (mindset, skills, capabilities) to turn the set of requirements into new ideas, insights, and eventual innovations.
Unthinkable things can happen when knowledgeable and digital-savvy people of different backgrounds meet in unusual settings. So how might serendipity help us to refine our understanding of innovation?
- Serendipity is a capability that can be cultivated and organized. It would help if you had dissenters: non-conformists square pegs in a round hole.
- Serendipity benefits from a degree of sloppiness, perseverance, and disagreement. Dictating is counterproductive.
- Serendipity needs diverse socializing. Group-think often leads to unanimity overriding alternative courses of action. Intergroup contact provides fertile grounds.
- Serendipity is also about monkeying around. Occasionally, it pays to neglect co-workers who tinker with company resources for their ‘non-official projects they care about deeply.
Serendipity is the outcome of unexpected ‘collisions’ between people, their ideas, and the marvels of new technology. When birds of different feathers flock together — people of different groups — amazing things can happen. When people have happy collisions with other people outside their regular peer groups, they connect in ways that wouldn’t happen on regular working days.
Curiosity, playfulness, empathy, explorative energy, and savviness set the stage. The other thing is digital technologies at our fingertips. Return on investment evaluates the efficiency or profitability of an investment. In the digital age, we have to ‘reverse’ the acronym ROI into IOR: Invest in digital capabilities; Opportunities will emerge; Returns will be harvested. And guess what? The lubricant in OIR is serendipity!