Serendipity has always been a contributing element in discoveries and breakthroughs. Whether accidentally stumbling upon a new idea during a brainstorming session or running into a colleague in the hallway and sparking an insightful conversation, serendipity relies on the chance interactions in our lives. Does it only occur in face-to-face interactions?
Background on Serendipity
The word serendipity was first coined in 1754 by English writer and politician Horace Walpole. He was inspired by a Persian fairy tale called "The Three Princes of Serendip," in which the protagonists made serendipitous discoveries by chance, using their wit, knowledge, and intuition. Serendipity depends on chance, knowledge, and wisdom in making successful discoveries.
But can serendipity still occur in today's hybrid and remote work environments, where most interactions happen virtually? Can we create a digital environment that nurtures serendipitous discoveries? To answer those questions, we must first understand the role of face-to-face interactions in chance discoveries.
In Real Life (IRL) Serendipity
Studies have shown that unplanned face-to-face IRL interactions between colleagues have been the environment that leads to new ideas, innovations, and problem-solving. Why is that the case?
When in person, it's easy to pick up on subtle cues such as body language and eye contact, which can often spark new ideas or reveal something that wasn't previously obvious. Additionally, IRL interaction fosters trust between peers and creates a safe environment for experimentation and collaboration without judgment.
Some examples of environments and events where serendipity thrives include a casual conversation between colleagues during a coffee break, which could lead to an unexpected breakthrough. Or someone walking down the hall might overhear an interesting conversation and gain insight into a problem they've been struggling with. Even something as simple as bumping into each other in the hallway or sharing ideas over lunch can spark creative solutions that may have never come up otherwise. These seemingly small moments create opportunities for serendipitous discoveries to occur when we least expect them.
With most interactions happening remotely today, can we create serendipity virtually?
The answer is yes. It all starts with communication tools, such as videoconferencing and instant messaging, to create a digital space where serendipity can occur. People can engage in meaningful conversations and share ideas more efficiently than ever using these tools. Technology can also facilitate “happy accidents” — moments when the combination of two or more different pieces of information creates a new insight or discovery.
My Personal Experience
Being an innovation guy, COVID pushed me to re-think my dogmatic view that serendipity required face-to-face accidental meetings of the minds. As I started working remotely and collaborating with colleagues virtually, I was amazed at how effective online interaction can be in creating an environment for digital serendipity.
I believe that the key to successful virtual collaboration is not just the tools but an innovation culture that encourages exploration and experimentation without fear of failure.
So how do I create the right environment for digital serendipity?
Tools: Create a digital environment that fosters serendipitous discoveries. I use Zoom with its virtual whiteboards, chat, and real-time document sharing, allowing teams to collaborate and share ideas virtually. I've lost count of how many online brainstorming sessions I've facilitated over Zoom. The right tool allows space for creative collaboration that can create room for successful discoveries by drawing from everyone's unique insights, no matter where they live.
Coffee Break: Within the first week of the COVID shutdown, I scheduled "Friday Coffee Breaks." This allowed everyone in our organization to get together with no agenda other than to hang out. This allowed people from different departments to cross-pollinate. Topics have ranged from pets to families to sharing articles of interest. The serendipity that has resulted is extraordinary. This session became so popular that more attended Coffee Break than the monthly All Hands. They are still going on.
Mixers: Bring together people who rarely work together from across the organization. This is not a brainstorming session. These are sessions that come together regularly to talk. No agenda. Just let the conversation happen based on whatever topic is of interest. The key is mixing the right people.
In my case, since I've become CEO, I've consciously wanted to stay connected to the technology we work on. To facilitate this, I've created a mixer of our Distinguished Technologists and Fellows (our top technical talent based on our Technical Career Path) from across the organization that meets every six weeks for 2 to 3 hours. It is just me and this technical leadership. No other executives, managers, etc. Just me and them. These are our brightest technologists and scientists, who each bring an area of deep expertise. Most do not work with each other. It is in these sessions where the magic happens. No agenda. Open conversation about what they are curious about, something they've read, the roadblocks they have encountered, or raw ideas they are kicking around.
Digital Tools Versus Face-To-Face
The effectiveness of serendipitous discoveries made using digital tools can vary depending on the context, but overall, they can be just as effective as in-person. With the right tools, culture, and settings, virtual environments can create an environment for chance discoveries that can be even more productive than those discovered from face-to-face interactions.
While face-to-face (IRL) serendipity seems to happen through the office layout and environment, serendipity in hybrid and remote work environments requires effort. It will not happen on its own. You must create open digital spaces for interaction that will spark that next great idea. It needs to be actively done and part of everyone's responsibility.
In my experience, top organizations use both. Bring your hybrid, remote, and office teams together regularly. Use these events to build the team's trust with each other. And between these face-to-face engagements, create open digital spaces that encourage accidental, spontaneous serendipity. Get the best of both worlds.
Serendipity Fueled Innovations
We have benefited from innovations from serendipity created from random and chance encounters. For example:
One of the most well-known innovations from serendipity is the discovery of the DNA double helix. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick worked together in a Cambridge lab, trying to solve the riddle of how genetic information is encoded within DNA molecules. By chance, one of their colleagues, Maurice Wilkins, showed Watson and Crick an X-Ray diffraction image of DNA which inspired them to construct an exploratory 3D model of DNA. After months of trial and error, they finally stumbled upon the double helix structure - a breakthrough discovery that revolutionized the scientific understanding of genetics.
Another example of serendipity is the discovery of penicillin. In 1928, Alexander Fleming was working in his lab studying Staphylococcus bacteria when he noticed some areas on a culture plate where the bacteria weren't growing. Upon further investigation, Fleming found that these spots had been contaminated with Penicillium notatum mold, killing the bacteria. Where did it come from? The source of the fungal contaminant was from colleague Charles J. La Touche's lab, which was directly below Fleming's. This accidental contamination and discovery later became the basis for one of the most famous antibiotics in history.
I would encourage you to challenge the skeptics of virtual serendipity and create game-changing examples that I can add to this post.
Serendipity relies on chance and wisdom to accidentally find what is of value, and we now have the tools and technology to facilitate precisely that. Creating a digital environment that enables collaboration, communication, and spontaneous engagement can spark moments of creative genius.
No matter what activities you introduce to your team, it's essential to remain grounded in the underlying principles of serendipity - chance, knowledge, and curiosity. Entrepreneurs, innovators, and business leaders need to be open to taking a chance and giving their teams the infrastructure, encouragement, and support they need to own it in full force. After all, the power of serendipity only grows when we use it to fuel our creative fires.
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