Is there a process to introduce chocolate to peanut butter?

May 2, 2013

Serendipity – the happy accident – is responsible for many remarkable innovations:  Gmail, Aspirin, the Pill, insulin, penicillin, antihistamines, the smallpox vaccine, Teflon, Velcro, Nylon, Ivory Soap, the Post-It note…

If there were a process for increasing such accidents it’d quickly become standard M.O. at most companies.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, in The Science of Serendipity in the Workplace, Rachel Emma Silverman describes several companies’ attempts to manufacture serendipity.

Some have odd names:  voting doors, lunch button, conversational portals, conversational balance table, infinity loop.  Some sound very corporate:  Serendipity Day.  Some sound unpleasant and a bit manipulative:  intentionally smaller rooms and hallways to literally create collisions.  (The late, great Steve Jobs famously used central bathrooms at Pixar HQ to force people to run into each other.)  Results, so far, are inconclusive.

But despite all the buzz around serendipity—several panels at the popular tech conference South by Southwest Interactive discussed the topic—it is hard to know for sure whether any of these efforts really work. The real challenge, companies and workplace scholars say, isn’t merely connecting workers with their colleagues so much as it is connecting them with the right ones.

“The most productive relationships are difficult to engineer,” says Jason Owen-Smith, a University of Michigan sociologist who studies employee collaboration…

But most companies are “still really primitive at this,” says Greg Lindsay, a visiting scholar at New York University who studies interactions in the workplace. “They compress people in the same space, put in a coffee machine and just hope that something good happens.”

The term serendipity was coined in the 18th-century by novelist Horace Walpole, inspired by the Persian fairy tale about three princes traveling through the land of Serendip.  They “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”  What distinguished their “abilities” from simple luck was that they could see meaningful combinations where others did not.

We found the examples cited by Silverman a little gimmicky and unlikely to achieve reproducible results.  Happy accidents may be more a matter of the right environment than the the right process.

Research from Harvard Business School suggests that 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

To this list we might add:  maintaining a high-trust environment, allowing people to play with mistakes, encouraging trial and error, and accepting an “optimal degree of wastefulness” in which minds wander and activity can seem directionless.

We’ll close with an entrepreneurial analogy on the subject from Saras Sarasvathy, a professor at the Darden School of Business.  She teaches that great entrepreneurs thrive on contingency and improvise their way to an outcome that only feels ordained in retrospect.  She likens them 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.”

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