Serendipity: How to make it happen

An editorial from the Council on Business & Society on something that puts flavour into our working lives: Serendipity. 

For long an exclusive and esoteric notion, absent from other languages and as evasive and enchanting as its occurrence itself, serendipity has nonetheless been at the root of countless breakthroughs, discoveries, inventions, theories and encounters throughout history. Today, it also has its place in innovation, entrepreneurship, business and management – with an increasing number of organisations working in or concerned by new technologies actively attempting to promote the occurrence of this bringer of unexpected and beneficial discovery.

What is serendipity?

Serendipity as a word first appeared in the English language in 1754, coined by the politician, writer and aesthete, Horace Walpole, from a Persian tale called The Three Princes of Serendip1. Serendipity can be defined as the art of unexpected and happy discovery. A notion of luck, hazard, coincidence and happenstance – being in the right place at the right time – is often included. Moreover, serendipity is a discovery, provoked by an attitude of mind, rebounding on the consequences of an adventure, experience, meeting, research or experiment. Some researchers claim that serendipity arises in moments of misfortune and failure2 and that these are necessary before luck, happenstance and fortunate discovery occur.

Open for business

While many qualities and attributes of serendipity are shared by leaders, scientists, pioneers, inventors and entrepreneurs alike, there are said to be two approaches to serendipity3: “spiritual serendipity” (or true serendipity) – where awareness, faith, openness and luck influence its sudden occurrence; and “scientific serendipity” (pseudo serendipity), where knowledge, analysis, calculation of probabilities and dogged endeavour path the way to discovery or at least a change that will eventually lead to discovery.

Put simply, in the first instance the individual, while not actually actively seeking or expecting anything, possesses the attitude of mind to invite the occurrence of serendipitous discovery related to a subject that wholly concerns him; in the second instance, the individual attempts to recreate a step-by-step path to discovery by basing his/her search upon knowledge, analysis, trial and error and continuous work upon the subject in question. Today, attempts are made to draw best practice from both forms of serendipity to develop ways and means to make it happen. From a gift presented only to the lucky few, serendipity is becoming a quality and skill that can be broken down, learnt, practised and encouraged to occur.

Serendipity, the spice

A recipe for success

The impact of serendipity on the workplace can be multiple and powerfully beneficial. Faced with a multitude of daily and long-term challenges, companies and employees want something that will give them a business edge, create new markets or business, trigger great achievement or performance or reveal the way to personal and collective success. But it is not only discovering ways to adapt to the market that ensures success, but also discovering something that makes the market adopt the organisation4. Entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship are key factors in encountering business serendipity: it is by venturing out into the unknown, trying different things and taking risks that discovery is made. Business serendipity is said to be the discovery of a better solution than the previous one without knowing the ideal solution from the start. Moreover, in a professional world in which mergers and acquisitions are regular occurrences, companies and their employees find themselves in a fortunate position of potentially discovering – with those they join forces with – a wealth of new skills, cultures, processes and assets which if acknowledged and exploited to the full, can be used to their advantage to create added value.

The nature of business, its changeability and especially the impact of real-time information and communication, is also beneficial to the occurrence of serendipity. Change means that people and organisations are constantly confronted with new opportunities and new mix – bringing different people and systems together to create environments favourable to the occurrence of serendipity. Communication means being able to detect anomalies and differences and select key information to react upon to create advantage and added value.

How to encourage serendipity

Who would’ve thought I’d meet you here…

The criteria for stimulating serendipity are many, but two points stand out as founding factors: action and humility. Firstly, serendipity manifests itself because there is action, interaction and enterprise on the part of people equipped with a certain attitude of mind. People have to move, meet others and act in order for things to happen. Secondly, humility is required. The individual most likely to encounter beneficial discovery is open and connected to his environment and subject, willing to make mistakes, recognise them and learn from them. Finally, and perhaps above all, he is outwards oriented and willing to communicate and interact with others regardless of their social or professional status. A famous business example is that of a group of sales and marketing executives whose challenge was to increase their organisation’s sales of toothpaste. Despite many attempts and much time and effort to find a way during a seminar dedicated to this challenge, they were only successful when, desperate for a solution and working late at the office, a manager happened to ask the cleaning lady for her opinion. To her, it was simple and the result stunningly effective – increase the size of the opening on the toothpaste tube! The manager had met with serendipity. Actively seeking for something and interaction with other people necessarily means that you are open to taking risks, venturesome and ready to change old ways for beneficial new ways. These are secondary, follow-on criteria leading to serendipity, as are alertness, creative thinking, the power of discernment, observation, analysis and courage. And finally, serendipity occurs when you give it the time and space to happen. It cannot be forced to appear at a given time or date. The thing you are seeking or concerned by must remain rooted in your unconscious, left to germinate and entrusted with occurring when it feels fit.

Behaviours leading to serendipity

Changing the same old plan

Socialising and networking, then, are clear founding behaviours leading to serendipity. As is mobility. Changing place – even at the level of changing the layout of your office – brings new perspectives and potentially new opportunity. Equipping yourself or team members with laptops and effective means of communication are also concrete ways to foster behaviour that increases the chances of discovery. In addition, getting out of the silo effect – encouraging people and communication to circulate – may well trigger happenstance and the discovery of key information that leads to improved processes, new products or at least a desire for change towards an improved situation. Many discoveries have been made by a combination of behaviours and circumstances. While it is true that hard work and plugging away until a solution is found is characteristic of discovery, it is nonetheless true that a great number of discoveries occur through no apparent effort at all. Essentially, it is a sense of active curiosity or intellectual dissatisfaction before something you cannot fully grasp that enables the behaviours of inflexion, experimentation and trial and error to occur and that lead you towards a meeting with serendipity.

Factors leading away from serendipity

In the light of the above, the obvious basis for not meeting with serendipity is an unwillingness or incapacity to communicate with others and a strong sense of immobility. Being sedentary, whether through lack of confidence or physical constraint (closed offices, desktop computers, strictly defined job roles and territory, for example), stifles the possible manifestation of luck and opportunity. Organisations or teams that insist on detailed processes to diminish risk and error are also unlikely to offer the initiative that is required of its people to “go out and explore”. Likewise, cultures – both national and organisational – that consider error and failure as taboo also shape counter-productive atmosphere that may induce fear, shame and inaction. And finally, insistence on detailed planning and minutiae, strict time constraints and an exaggerated expectation for results, create a pressure that stifles the creativity, courage and freedom required for people and events to come together and generate beneficial contexts and environments.

The development of serendipity as a workplace tool


This way for adventure

An acknowledged characteristic of many great discoveries – from the discovery of America to Gutenberg’s printing press, electricity, gravity, Coca-Cola, penicillin, the x-ray and Post-it® notes to name but a few – serendipity remained in obscurity for many years as scientific logic alone attempted to provide rational answers to the pursuit of invention and discovery. Its return comes at a time when new technologies have accelerated the pace of change and reactivity, provided instant communication and demanded ever-rapid solutions. Serendipity at once answers several needs for the business world: the capacity to encourage and induce advantageous discovery, the need to find an approach that necessarily embraces action and change and lastly, a skill that involves not only concrete behaviours but calls upon the impalpable and sometimes elusive qualities and beliefs of a specific, beneficial and open attitude of mind.

  1. Serendip was the ancient name for Ceylon (today Sri Lanka). The tale follows the story of a king who sends his three sons on a voyage of education and adventure in which they show proof of great sagacity.
  2. Jean-Louis Swiners.
  3. These two denominations are attributed to the writer, Royston Roberts.
  4. Armen Alchian/Daniel Klein.

By Tom Gamble, Editor

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