Planned serendipity for innovation in the workplace

December 3, 2009

Lightbulbs_Faith_GobleIn reply to a comment on one of my posts regarding knowledge activities I used the phrase ‘planned serendipity’ to describe how, in my opinion, the conditions could be created in which seredipitous ideas stand more of a chance of being generated. In this context serendipity = innovation.

According to Wikipedia the word ‘serendipity’ is –

‘ …the effect by which one accidentally stumbles upon something fortunate, especially while looking for something entirely unrelated’.

So if ‘serendipity’ relies on accidents how can it be planned?

Planning for serendipity

It is not so much about ensuring serendipitous discoveries happen, which is impossible, as in removing any constraints that will nip such discoveries in the bud. It’s like planting flower seeds and removing any weeds to give them space to grow. Removing weeds will not ensure you get a good flower but if you don’t remove weeds you can be sure that you will have a zero chance of getting a flower at all.

So what constraints might there be?

  •  Information silos – many good discoveries are made by putting two pieces of information together to create a third and, perhaps, more powerful outcome through ‘information synergy’. If staff in your organization cannot access the full breadth of content across all departments then information synergy will not happen
  • ‘People’ silos – how do people in your organization get to meet and exchange ideas with other staff across your organization? There have been times in my working life where the team I was working with had gotten really stuck and disaster was looming. Then someone would say ‘I know a guy who works downstairs who knows something about this’. The guy is summoned and not only does he know something about the problem, he knows everything and he has the answer to solve a seemingly unsolvable dilemma. I’m not just talking about work stuff here. People’s lives don’t end when they walk out of the office door. The amount of useful stuff that people know can be surprising and incredibly valuable but if you don’t create ways in which this knowledge can be made known to other members of staff in your organization then you are really missing a golden opportunity. Even if a cut down version of training records were made available on an intranet and it also included competencies not related to work this would be a big step forward for many organizations.
  • Lack of opportunities for staff to think creatively – Lack of situations where staff can freely exchange ideas and get to meet other staff from outside of their normal working routines will help ensure that innovation is stifled. Allow staff from time to time to combine with other staff or even people outside your organization and get them thinking outside the box. It could be about a real problem, as in peer to peer groups, or preferably ‘blue sky’ stuff. For instance put the word ‘IMPROVE’ in big letters on a flip chart and give them an hour to come up with some ideas. You won’t get good ideas all the time but one really good idea every now and then will more than repay the effort.
  • Lack of ‘Innovation spaces’ – physical spaces can also greatly enhance the innovation process. Some of the most enlightening discussions I have had have been by the coffee machine, by the water cooler, queuing in the canteen or just bumping into people in the corridor. Think about the physical layout of your work spaces and make it easy for people meet serendipitously. How can this be done? One idea might be to share the water cooler with another department and the coffee machine with yet another. Give your staff space in which to stand and chat and don’t get on their case if they do just that.
  • Lack of ‘innovation representatives’ in important meetings – I heard many years ago that the US military had a system whereby people, whose knowledge or expertise might be in a particular area, might be  invited to attend meetings which were nothing to do with their professional role. It was felt that they might look at things in a different perspective and actually be able to see both the wood and the trees. It was a way of introducing a different way of thinking especially useful in situations when  everyone else is thinking the same way, a sort of professional rut. Someone from a different discipline, with different mental models, can make valuable contributions especially when the current way of looking at a problem has run out of road. 

I don’t think that any of the above approaches are costly and they only need to occassionally produce a good idea to amply repay your efforts. But if you create the right environment you might from time to time produce a ‘killer idea’, an idea that will radically improve you product, service or process and, in terms of competitive edge, these are absolutely priceless.

(My thanks to Faith Goble for her Flickr CC light bulbs photo)

One Response to “Planned serendipity for innovation in the workplace”

  1. […] First, there are information silos, where no one has an end-to-end understanding of the data available. Next, there are people silos, which do not afford opportunities for people across departments to interact. Then there are the three “lacks.” There is lack of opportunity for creative thinking. There is lack of “innovation spaces” like shared break rooms. And lastly, there is lack of “innovation representatives” in meetings, people who are experts in one discipline that are invited to listen in on meetings that fall under a separate discipline. When you make conscious efforts to remove these five barriers, the channels for serendipity will open, and then maybe you can get some accidental innovation going. You can read Walsh’s blog post here: […]

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