Innovation and Serendipity

In 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.

About Ralph-Christian Ohr

Experienced innovation management and corporate development professional. Consulting on organizational and personal capabilities for high innovation performance. Integrative thinker. T-shaped.

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9 Responses to Innovation and Serendipity

  1. Paul Hobcraft May 24, 2013 at 2:02 PM #

    I’m a sucker for serendipity and random collisions -thanks for the article- which I feel upon!

    • Ralph-Christian Ohr May 24, 2013 at 7:48 PM #

      Thanks Paul! Indeed, I think diversity and emergent approaches are gaining importance.

      Though, it will be a tough act to follow facing the prevalent “deliberate”-biased mindset.

      We should plan for some “random collisions” in Ticino or elsewhere during the coming summer!

  2. Mark Hart May 28, 2013 at 8:12 PM #

    Wikipedia defines serendipity as a ‘happy accident’ or ‘pleasant surprise.’ In contrast, innovation seldom rests on a foundation of luck. Innovation requires a cascade of decisions and actions and a self-correcting analysis of feedback.

    Value creation (which is a required part of an innovation definition) favors the prepared network (team). Being prepared includes factors such as appropriate place, appropriate time, appropriate equipment, appropriate training, sense of mission,…

    I have found that diversity is one member of the set of characteristics that facilitate the potential for innovation.

    A helpful resource on “The Theory of Accidental Excellence” as it relates to photography is at

    • Ralph-Christian Ohr June 2, 2013 at 12:27 PM #

      Thanks for your feedback Mark.

      I definitely agree with you that Innovation cannot solely be based on “luck”. In particular, implementing and executing innovative ideas depends on preparedness, structure and deliberate approaches.

      However, I believe, emergent approaches are becoming more important and have to complement deliberate approaches. It’s increasingly impossible to have all opportunities and ideas available upfront. Many of them will emerge “on the fly” due to widened idea spaces via random collisions (conversations) and recombination of existing ideas. As you have pointed out, diversity is a mandatory precondition for this to occur. Moreover, a prepared network includes activities to increase the likelihood of valuable encounters within the network, i.e. shaping for serendipity.

      Thanks for the pointer – that’s interesting!

  3. Kevin McFarthing May 29, 2013 at 9:20 AM #

    Hi Ralph, some very good thoughts here as usual. As you say companies should understand what they are looking for, but should also be open to considering the unexpected opportunities they discover along the way. Having an open mind is key. I wrote a blog a while ago on “Directed Serendipity” in open innovation which tried to capture this point –

    Another key point you make is to connect companies internally. Most large organizations sit on a diverse array of IP and talent which offers much greater potential than is currently realized. If companies are very good at internal serendipity, they will also be more “lucky” outside.

    • Ralph-Christian Ohr June 2, 2013 at 12:32 PM #

      Thanks Kevin!

      That’s a great post and I fully agree with you: preparing for serendipity starts internally.

  4. Jack Hipple May 30, 2013 at 1:29 AM #

    Though I have seen, experienced, and read some interesting examples of serendipity, relying on it as a primary innovation and creativity tool is suspect. The challenge people have is in the ego aspect of thinking the problem they are trying to solve is unique. If we study the breadth of inventions in the patent literature and generalize the inventive principles used, we find a limited number that are constantly reused. Various industries use all kinds of special acronyms and jargon to make it seem that the challenge is special and unique, leading to the idea of having these kinds of meetings to get new ideas from anywhere. If wwe take the serious time to analyze the problem and generalize it in the right language, it turns out to be easy to recognize and focus on the parallel universes which have and have solved similar problems. Not as much “fun”, but far more productive.

    • Ralph-Christian Ohr June 2, 2013 at 12:38 PM #

      Thanks Jack. Preparing for serendipity should happen in complement to analytic and structured processes and approaches, rather than being considered as primary approach.

      If we don’t prepare for emergence, we’ll lose crucial opportunities in an increasingly complex and interconnected future.


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