Serendipity is core to the success of modern companies. While some may not have articulated their insights as facilitating serendipity, it was certainly what they were thinking, even if they didn’t realise it.
For example, Google’s 20% time, where employees can spend 20% of their time working on anything they like, has resulted in numerous “happy accidents” where pet projects have matured into fully fledged revenue enhancing products, such as gmail.
Charles Leadbeater talks of the “we think” phenomenon, where innovation occurs simply by people having access to products that give them flexibility in how they use them. This philosophy taps into the free thinking collective consciousness of the social web. The birth of Twitter is the perfect example. Hash tags, “@” mentions, retweets are all customer innovations that were subsequently added to the Twitter experience we know and love today. It’s highly likely that “@” mentions were a significant factor in boosting user engagement and hashtags are now one of Twitter’s revenue sources.
Countless more examples exist but how is this achieved and what does this have to do with serendipity?
Adrian Cockroft of Netflix explains that you can’t force innovation, you have to get out of the way of innovation. This applies to what we enable people to do with products, such as the Twitter story, as much as what people do with their 20% (or more) time.
It’s not just the organisation that needs to embrace serendipity, the working environment does too. In “Designs for Working” Malcolm Gladwell highlights:
“Who, after all, has a direct interest in creating diverse, vital spaces that foster creativity and serendipity? Employers do.”
He uses Greenwich Village, where opportunities for people to meet by happenstance are rife, as a model for the ideal work environment. Many of his ideas can be found in the forward thinking companies, I’ve already mentioned, that are breaking all the rules and being so successful as a result.
Much innovation in what we produce or even how we produce it may never have happened if they had required a typical business case or if the working environment was more like a factory-line or made up of closed offices.
The Serendipity Economy
Daniel Rasmus, the person who coined the phrase “the serendipity economy”, captures the problem with your traditional business case so well when he says:
“If the only economics you have to work with come from the industrial age, then everything looks like a factory.”
Rasmus highlights, in “Welcome to the Serendipity Economy”, the benefits of knowledge, ideas, experimentation are not immediate or predictable within a specific time-frame or quantifiable with traditional measures of productivity or returns on investment. He highlights the importance of serendipity in innovation and the power of social networking in accelerating the process.
I was talking with one client the other day about their budget approvals process. It was so heavyweight that several increments of the product could have been developed with the money spent on documenting theoretical feasibility and commercial viability.
Instead, companies would be better off adopting a lean start-up model for new projects. Ensure that employees have social networking tools at their disposal. Share the ideas. Create a simple sign up page that’s sent out to employees or even the general public. Get feedback. Provide “seed-funding” to the projects that inspire the most passionate responses. Get the first few features built. See how hard or easy it is. If it works out, you’ll have empirical data to base future estimates on and you’ll have the beginnings of the product (maybe something releasable).
All this can be done with less than many large companies would have spent on writing business cases with hypothesised technical-feasibility and unproven commercial-viability. Yes, some ideas will flop, but that experience could be the very thing that inspires your biggest success.
Google, Twitter, Netflix and more show us that investing in serendipity (and talent) is key to the modern organisation’s success. It will take a leap of faith that many feel they cannot afford to take in these difficult economic times. But, to survive and thrive in the future, you have to ask if it’s a leap you can afford to not take.