I Believe in Serendipity

I am where I am due to serendipity (the act of making a discovery by accident).

Back in the mid 1990s, a “spoken decision” led to a cascade of events that resulted in my life today.  As I look back, it truly was a cascade.  Each decision led to another opportunity that led to another decision that led to another opportunity – and so on and so on.  To be frank, I don’t know if I made the decisions myself … at times it seems as if I just followed the next set of instructions.   But – no instruction book existed.  It all seemed so very automatic … and right.   When recounting the story as to how I got where I am today, I still marvel at it all.

So my question – if serendipity is at work in a person’s life, is it (or can it be) also at work in organizations?  My answer – YES!

The history of so many of our well-known products that were discovered by accident is evidence of serendipity at work.  The story about the 3M glue “without a home” that turned out to be the beginning of Post-It® Notes is a common example.  Joining Post-It® Notes in the “accidental innovation arena” is penicillin, the smallpox vaccine, Velcro®… and the list goes on and on and on.   So serendipity and innovation are very interwoven into the fabric of organizations large and small.

I had the great opportunity to listen to Daniel Pink (author of Drive and A Whole New Mind) speak at a conference this week.  Pink talked about the importance of autonomy … providing an environment where your teams let their creativity soar (known as permitted bootlegging in the Post-It® Note days) … where individuals may follow their passions and create from their heart … where “noncommissioned” work can be the springboard to the next new product, organizational success, and triple profits.

In line with this thinking is The Power of Pull:  How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion written by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison.  The authors describe the concept of “Pull” as the ability to draw out people and resources as needed to address opportunities and challenges.  From the introduction – “Pull gives us unprecedented access to what we need, when we need it, even if were not quite sure what ‘it’ is.”

So what lessons do we learn from this?

Leaders: Be comfortable with stepping outside … being on the edge … and encouraging your teams to step outside and be “edgy” also.  Embrace the “crazy idea.”  Look forward to failure – and how that failure can be turned into success.  Let your minds wander – and then connect the dots.  Look for randomness – and then create order out of the accidents.  Consider the “Power of Pull”.

Have you experienced serendipity in your organization? Let me know your thoughts!

Read More About It:

  • Hagel III, John, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison.  The Power of Pull:  How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion.  New York:  Basic Books, 2010.
  • Pink, Daniel.  Drive:  The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  New York:  Riverhead Books, 2009.
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