Serendipity, or uncertainty, can make chance discoveries while searching for something not directly related to the finding. We might think that it is a random discovery, but it is something more complex in reality. Serendipity moves away from linear thinking (the most common for us, based on the principle of cause-effect) and deductive reasoning. It breaks with usual systems, opening the way to curiosity and imagination and lateral thinking since they allow, from unexpected facts, to draw conclusions, discoveries, or ideas of great value.
How does serendipity happen?
Throughout history, many serendipities have given rise to famous discoveries and lucky finds, such as coca-cola, post-it notes, potato chips or penicillin. If we take Alexander Fleming’s discovery as a reference, we will quickly realize that serendipity is not a stroke of luck but a complex phenomenon in which several elements intervene:
- It was in the right place at the right time: When Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he was not working on finding a medicine but observing staphylococcus bacteria. After being absent from the laboratory for a few weeks, the propitious situation arose for his discovery: the Petri dishes he had left with samples of bacteria had not been stored correctly and were contaminated by mould.
- Perception: Our senses must pick up information that other people might not be aware of or would not be curious about. In Fleming’s case, observing mould in the Petri dishes, he realized something different in them and decided to celebrate this change under a microscope.
- Knowledge: Although the finding obtained due to uncertainty was not being consciously sought, it is necessary for the person who experiences it to have specific knowledge. Without knowledge of medicine and microbiology, Alexander Fleming would not have drawn any conclusions when observing that the mould that had arisen on the plates due to carelessness was destroying the staphylococcus bacteria.
- State of fluidity (Flow): It is a state of concentration in which the person has their mind and senses entirely focused on an activity, which allows them to detect facts and situations that would usually be overlooked. Both motivation and concentration are part of this state. In the case of Fleming, he would refer to all the analyses derived from the observation of the destruction of bacteria by mould, which allowed him to validate mould as a possible antidote against this bacterium and lay the foundations for the discovery of penicillin.
Therefore, we can say that serendipity is a skill, the ability to be alert to chance to draw conclusions, discoveries, ideas…
Serendipity in the company
Serendipity checks the traditional models applied to innovation and creativity within the company to introduce flexibility and randomness. This encourages the introduction of new concepts such as the state of Flow or lateral thinking (organization of thought processes, which uses new perspectives and visions to obtain results that would escape linear thinking), which are already part of the vocabulary of departments—cutting-edge creatives.
Serendipity takes on particular value in crisis contexts since it allows solutions to be found that might not have been reached otherwise. An example of this is the distilleries in Germany that, with the Covid19 crisis, chose to dedicate themselves to the production of disinfectant alcohol instead of closing. All over the world, there are distilleries, and not all of them opted for this route. Many ceased their activity until it was possible to resume it, with the economic losses.
In short, serendipity in the business context is a transformative element since it offers a way to develop resilience that will allow organizations to overcome adverse situations or enhance their creativity to provide new business channels, solutions to problems and ultimately add value to the project, whatever it may be.
How to foster serendipity
The most innovative companies are already working in this line. If there is something straightforward, everything far from flexibility is an obstacle to serendipity: excessive planning, inbred contexts, extreme orientation to results, routine, rigid structures…
On the contrary, we understand that everything that nourishes and stimulates the mind will promote serendipity:
- Reduce rigidity: Companies usually work by resorting to planning, measurement, organization, manuals that indicate what can be done and what cannot and how… All these formulas end up creating a closed framework in which there is little room for innovation. Creativity. The proposal is not to break with all this but to create conditions in which solutions or new business avenues are not only sought at a specific time but also in which it is possible to find without searching, thanks to a less rigid environment in which the worker does not have every hour of his work scheduled.
- Exchange: Generating spaces in which people with different profiles can talk and exchange impressions and points of view. After all, the proposal is to observe and listen without any specific objective. The connections will occur when the time is right.
- Flexibility: Of schedules, to work in different spaces within the office, teleworking… all this takes us away from the routine and allows us to reach different levels of concentration, reconcile, reduce stress… which results in a more significant space for creativity.
- Decongest the mind: A stressed mind cannot be creative. Taking this premise, many companies offer disconnection spaces in their offices: meditation rooms, slots to play…
Serendipity inevitably entails a change in philosophy:
- Making room for curiosity
- Incorporating open minds into teams
- Understanding the importance of the accidental
Although not all companies are prepared for a profound change along these lines, it is interesting to begin to introduce changes and trust in the ability of the human mind to go beyond the limits that we handle at the moment.