The Value of Serendipity

I’ve got a bit of a thing about serendipity and it’s role in creativity. I’ve always believed that we largely make our own luck and I love a phrase one of my former managers uses – “engineered serendipity” – how do we create situations in which we are more likely to be lucky? New ideas come from new connections and new resources which enable new combinations to arise.

At this point I’d just recommend readers to go and read Stephen Johnson’s ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ book which explains some really neat ideas about ideas.

I’ll just use one quote from the book: “you won’t get far by cloistering yourself away from the world and waiting for inspiration to hit you. Chance favours the connected mind.”

Serendipity arises from connections – lots of diverse connections. Those connections give you access to resources (knowledge, people, ideas, concepts). Innovation arises from new connections between existing building blocks – the process of innovation is an assembling of spare parts.

The biography of entrepreneurs and inventors is the biography of people who succeed in connecting up diverse ideas to access the ‘adjacent possible’.

So, if connections drive serendipity then networking is critical. However, this is usually where people (including me) start to baulk at the value of serendipity because we notice the opportunity cost involved… how much time can you ‘waste’ on creativity?

Networking, and other processes of gaining access to often random and diverse ideas, takes time (and patience!). Do we have the time and will to indulge the conversational dead-ends and sometimes tenuous meetings to find the gold hidden in these unexpected locations? There is a reason why real innovations aren’t everyday – it’s because they take time and persistence, and a willingness to look beyond the obvious responses.

At different points in my career I’ve been on the receiving end of a serious ‘frowning at’ by colleagues for the time I spend indulging in serendipitous activity (some networking events, reading, and meetings do appear to be a way to waste time) – the “why are you wasting your time with THAT?” look… (although I should stress they’ve rarely said it out loud). They clearly feel that I’m not getting the opportunity-cost equation right. Fair enough – it’s a personal thing.

The thing is that I have, I think, been regarded as amongst the more pioneering and inventive staff in most of the workplaces I’ve occupied – is that because I network, read, and connect so much or is it a result of being ‘inventive’ anyway? It’s a bit chicken and egg – but they’re definitely related!


My most recent tenuous-time was spent with the Department of Philosophy discussing creativity – did it really need a day of my time? I think yes, it paid off – I found some useful philosophical underpinning for a lot of the ‘practitioner know-how’ I routinely use – ‘synthetic practical judgement’, ‘cumulative cultural artefacts’, and the ‘cognitively embedded’ rather than ‘romantic’ views of creativity are great explanations I’ll be routinely coming back to. I also built some bridges with another academic department and established some useful connections to engage in future Centre for Innovation projects. There were also some great references and examples to use in both upcoming freelance and academic projects. 

Just what I needed…MORE ideas… (sigh)

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