Innovation and Serendipity

Innovation and SerendipityIn a previous post, I have pointed out the importance of diversity for innovation and organizational adaptability. Diversity is a crucial precursor to serendipity. In the Power of Pull, John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison emphasize the rising need for serendipity:

We need to find ways to attract relevant innovators and edge participants so that we can discover early windows into the developments that will end up transforming how we live and work. Sure, serendipity has always been important, but in a world of near-constant disruption, it becomes essential to survival. Without the pleasant surprises of serendipity, we will instead have to cope with the unpleasant shock of unanticipated disruptions that undermine all that we have worked to achieve. (…)

We increasingly find that we no longer even know what to seek, even with the growing power of search. (…) At times like these, the cursor blinks in the search engine’s textbox, mocking us, asking the existential question: Do you even know what you are looking for? And even if we think we do, it’s guaranteed that “unknown unknowns,” as Donald Rumsfeld memorably called them, are waiting for us, both as opportunities and as barriers.

Innovation is becoming increasingly emergent

Innovation in the future will increasingly happen in more emergent ways by bringing together seemingly disparate fields and pieces of knowledge. The value of searching for information is increasingly limited as we don’t know what to search for in many cases. In face of complex life and work environments, predefined and narrow objectives as well as deliberate strategies often turn out to be inconvenient. Serendipitous “collisions”, in turn, require building up diverse networks and connections.

Google can answer almost anything you ask it, but it can’t tell you what you ought to be asking. Ian Leslie

Though we increasingly interact within virtual networks and communities, physical spaces are the primary serendipity shapers. Face-to-face interactions are still most conducive to accessing tacit knowledge. We tap into this knowledge through trust-based relationships and closely working together on challenging projects.

Virtual and physical spaces can be seen complementary to each other. On the one hand, virtual spaces are increasingly able to amplify knowledge we generate through personal interactions. On the other hand, diverse virtual connections often create more valuable real-life opportunities.


Figure: Simulated collision of two protons (credit: CERN,

In search of (engineered) serendipity

As firms, like Yahoo and Google see it, close-knit teams do well at tackling the challenges in front of them, but lack the connections to spot complementary ideas elsewhere in the company. The sociologist Ronald S. Burt calls these organizational gaps “structural holes.” In a 2004 study he found that managers who serendipitously bridged these holes were more likely to generate good ideas.

Firms therefore try to come up with new ideas to stimulate interaction between employees who normally do not work together. To make those connections happen, some firms are taking a scientific approach – collecting and analyzing data about their teams and mathematically computing the likelihood that employees will meet. Studies have found that having colleagues work in close proximity to each other does correlate with increased collaboration. Research recently found that when workers shared the same buildings and overlapped in their daily workplace walking patterns – moving between lab space, office space, and the nearest bathroom and elevator – they were significantly more likely to collaborate: for every 100 feet of “zonal overlap,” collaborations increased by up to 20%. Case in point: Online retailer Zappos.

Despite all efforts: it seems to be impossible to engineer the truly valuable interactions and collisions. However, the chances for serendipity can be boosted by arranging its necessary preconditions.

Shaping serendipity

Here is what Frans Johansson advises on how to leverage diversity of thoughts in order to increase the likelihood for serendipity to occur:

For instance, bring together people from outside your organization, or between siloed departments or between different countries or cultures. These interactions will help you find unexpected insights and opportunities — those that others might not have logically figured out. Take statistical advantage of these random moments by placing as many purposeful bets you can afford while not becoming distracted.

What else can we do to shape serendipity? Here are some further suggestions:

  • If you just think of serendipity as an interaction with an unintended outcome, you can orchestrate pleasant surprises. Institute simple measures like positioning couches near doorways and stocking rooms with multiple types of seating to encourage lingering conversations.
  • Think about companywide lunch hours. You can leverage chance conversations and larger social networks by providing tables, designed to accomodate a higher number of people.
  • Abigail McBirnie mentions an interesting quantitative aspect of serendipity: in average, people make up one third of the participants of a serendipity story. The remaining parts are deemed to be either information or physical objects. This suggests to not just expose oneself to diverse people, but also to various information sources and novel physical environments for serendipity to occur.

Serendipity as ingredient for breakthrough innovation

Breakthrough innovation often relies on serendipity. Research from Wharton School suggests knowledge flows to be highly critical for breakthroughs. Knowledge flows involve knowledge that individuals are actively engaging in while doing a task. These flows allow information from peripheral domains to permeate. This can lead to recombination of ideas in novel and useful ways. The reason: information that is available in an individual’s short-term memory (knowledge flows) is more cognitively accessible than information stored in individual’s long-term memory (knowledge stocks).

The researchers also provide some managerial advice: allocate a large portion of a worker’s total work time to one particular assignment or project. If work group members have more attention available to devote to the task or project, the advantages of [paying]attention to a particular peripheral domain will be more likely to outweigh the disadvantages arising from distracting attention from other domains. Hoewever, there remains a risk that workers might focus too much on domains that are actually irrelevant to their task, thus preventing their performance on the primary task. This requires dealing successfully with such tradeoffs on the part of workers and managers.


Innovation and adaptability require deliberate, but also increasingly emergent approaches in order to succeed. Diversity and serendipity can be considered as necessary ingredients to stay competitive in the time to come. Serendipity can’t be literally engineered, but be shaped within given limitations. The likelihood for serendipitous encounters to occur can be increased by establishing appropriate preconditions, such as

  • creation of serendipity-friendly virtual and physical infrastructures
  • build-up of diverse networks, i.e. weak ties in complement to strong ties
  • managers valuing serendipity and trust-based, encouraging leadership style
  • ability of workers to adequately balance attention between core and peripheral domains, i.e. abosorbing edge information without being distracted from core tasks
  • capability to integrate convergent and divergent thinking, or as Jorge Barba puts it: if you’re told what to look for, you can’t see anything else.

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    Ralph OhrDr. Ralph-Christian Ohr has extensive experience in product/innovation management for international technology-based companies. His particular interest is targeted at the intersection of organizational and human innovation capabilities. You can follow him on Twitter @Ralph_Ohr.

Ralph Ohr

Dr. Ralph-Christian Ohr is an nnovation advisor with extensive experience of various senior management and consulting functions for international companies based in Switzerland. His particular interest is aimed at modern organizational and personal capabilities for high innovation performance. You can visit his Integrative Innovation blog at and follow him on Twitter @ralph_ohr.




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  1. Janet Sernack on June 7, 2013 at 9:26 am

    Great about innovation and emergence, I am successfully incorporating emergence processes, specifically Theory U, by Otto Sharmer, out of MIT, in my coach for innovators and innovative leadership programs. Emergence can be facilitated and requires the development of generative skill-set.
    Happy to share more.

  2. Julie on June 9, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    I love the quote from Jorge Barba. It’s true that once you’re told what to see it’s hard to see anything else because our brains get stuck in that rut and it takes creativity to pull it out.

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