Serendipity: If It Works, We Call It a Strategy

Type in the search term “innovation” on Amazon and you’ll discover over 200,000 books on the topic. It makes me wonder: if they are so many books about innovation and success, why is so little innovation successful? Reading about innovation, we learn about what we need in the 21st century to be truly innovative:

  • multidisciplinary teams
  • fast prototyping
  • creative workspaces
  • managing people & the creative process

If we know all of those (and many more) factors, why does it remain so difficult to apply the magic formula of innovation and success to the real world? Having worked as an entrepreneur for over fifteen years with my young leadership team (okay, we are a bit older now) I was asked many times: “What is our strategy?” In difficult times even the most uncertain of us were convinced: “We must have a strategy!” Our hope: Cause A leads to effect B. If we did A to come to B we would have a logical path. This is what all the successful competitors do, right?


Serendipity: Finding a book about serendipity because a flight was delayed

For the past three years, I lived in the US. As a foreigner, I always try to expand my vocabulary. (And, lucky for me, there are still enough words for me to continue my education.) One of my favorite words that I learned is Serendipity. I don’t know an equivalent in my native German. You might translate it as “happy coincidence” (”Glücklicher Zufall”). But it means much more than that. I think a lot about serendipity and success. The last time I flew out of Logan Airport, returning to Frankfurt, a flight delay meant that I had time to browse some books. In a book called “The Click Moment” by Frans Johansson I found some answers to my questions —in a whole book about randomness and serendipity. Johansson has bad news for the Planners.

He believes that a linear strategy with the classical thinking of cause-and-effect transaction will not work anymore. Not in a global world of uncertainty with millions of dependencies.

The future does not behave predictably. If we rely simply on logic we will be sideswiped when random changes come our way. This failure of logic, however, has not prevented us from using it in countless ways to chart a path to success… Success in the future defies logic and prediction because it is and must be random.


The key to serendipity: Be open and follow your curiosity

We have to be open for randomness and serendipity. We have to create “click moments” that “enable us to uncover the ideas and opportunities others have not.” Chances are that serendipity won’t come to you in your cozy living room with a fire in the fireplace. More times than not, you have to go out into the elements and be open for it to occur. The good news is that you can create “click moments” by opening yourself to random events:

  1. Take time and schedule things which are not related to your immediate goal. If you take your eyes off the ball, you might discover possibilities around you.
  2. Look for inspiration in different fields, industries and cultures.
  3. Creating teams with the required skills will solve specific tasks. But do they find something new and different from your competitors? Better: Create diverse teams with a variety of skills.
  4. Create a collision-prone environment.
  5. And maybe most important: Follow your curiosity.

Johansson also describes the idea of placing purposeful bets; the idea behind it being that you give yourself many chances to get lucky. Place many bets and minimize the size of the bets. Do not think too much about return on investment but rather about affordable loss. Send your ideas out into the unpredictable world and see what happens. Are you preparing your next workshop or brainstorming to find a breakthrough idea for your new product/service/startup? Maybe it would be better to think about traveling through Africa for two weeks and leave all the innovation success and strategy books at home. You might just get inspired from the local use of mobile technology in a different culture and come across better ideas than working with the experts for a month. And if it works – in the end you still can call it a strategy.


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