Seeing meaningful combinations where others do not

September 7, 2011

The subject of entrepreneurial psychology – “inside the mind of great entrepreneurs” – is the source of much research (and blogging).  Last February we wrote of research from the Darden School of Business which likened great entrepreneurs to Iron Chefs: “at their best when presented with an assortment of motley ingredients and challenged to whip up whatever dish expediency and imagination suggest.”  Professor Sarasvathy had several keen insights on the difference between this mindset, which she termed effectual reasoning, and the causal reasoning of successful corporate executives.

Corporate managers believe that to the extent they can predict the future, they can control it. Entrepreneurs believe that to the extent they can control the future, they don’t need to predict it.  Entrepreneurs thrive on contingency. The best ones improvise their way to an outcome that in retrospect feels ordained

Thriving on contingency, outcomes that feel ordained… some could argue this conflates luck and skill.  Napoleon famously (and apocryphally) was said to prefer lucky generals over clever ones.  (He was reliably quoted on the subject thusly: “A bold general may be lucky but no general can be lucky unless he is bold.”)

Recent research, this time from Harvard Business School, emphasizes the importance of serendipity as opposed to simple luck.  In  Make Serendipity Work For You  authors Mark de Rond, Adrian Moorhouse, and Matt Rogan recount an old tale about three princes from Serendip and their skills of observation and problem-solving:

The princes did far more than make chance observations. The tale is instructive because the princes relied on their ability to recombine a series of casual observations into something meaningful. And it is just this combinatorial skill — the ability to combine events or observations in meaningful ways — that differentiates serendipity from luck. Serendipity is to see meaningful combinations where others do not.

The authors speculate that some organizations are “luckier” than others because they tolerate “an optimal degree of wastefulness” based on the assumption that serendipity “relies on loafing and savoring the moment, of wandering and loitering and directionless activity of all sorts.”  They argue serendipity is a close relative of creativity and can be encouraged by a few organizational factors.  Serendipity:

  • benefits from scarcity (forcing people to be creative) and from a degree of sloppiness, tenacity, and dissent
  • depends partially on socialization (who you share offices and interests with)
  • gets a boost from tinkering, especially when co-workers tinker with resources for things they care about personally

These thoughts echo The Lost Land of Serendip by Andrew Ferguson (12 years ago) in Forbes:

Serendipity is the province of the happy accident. A poet, consulting a dictionary, stumbles upon an unfamiliar word that sends his poem toward a conclusion he would never have expected. Or a team of scientists–this actually happened recently–seeks to synthesize a new tanning chemical and discovers instead a powerful substitute for Viagra…

But serendipity depends on inefficiency. Entire institutions, now being reconfigured in the age of convergence, were arranged to make serendipity possible. Remember library stacks? Books on a similar subject would be grouped together, so a student looking for Lincoln’s birth date in a biography might stumble instead on a book of his speeches, which might ignite an interest in the battle of Gettysburg, which could inspire a curiosity about 19th-century armaments, which were first developed during the Crimean War, which raises the question of the Ottoman Empire and…

Terribly inefficient! Thoroughly distracting!

Lest anyone think we’ve given too much aid&comfort to sloth, inefficiency, and other bad habits, we’ll close with Gary Player’s thoughts on the subject:  “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

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