In a rapidly changing world, we often don't know which problems to address, which questions to ask, or which resources to develop. Overcoming these challenges requires two uncomfortable adjustments: we must learn to accept the limitations of planning, and embrace the potential of the unexpected.
In our research – including a recent Leaders on Purpose study in which we spoke with more than a dozen of Harvard Business Review's CEOs of the year – one pattern has come up again and again. The most successful leaders and their companies have increasingly, and usually sub-consciously, been developing a muscle for serendipity.
Serendipity tends to happen when we open our eyes to the unexpected. At its best, this means seeing bridges where others see holes. In our day-to-day lives, we often fail to capture serendipitous moments. By definition, serendipity – “Making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of,” is how English author Horace Walpole, who coined the term, described serendipity in 1754 – is not completely controllable, let alone predictable. However, our research shows that there are tangible ways to develop the conditions for serendipity and to ensure that these potentially transformational coincidences are grasped with both hands.
For example, an increasing number of companies design agile structures and processes to cope with the unexpected. Take Haier, the world’s largest white goods company, which recently acquired General Electric’s Appliances Unit. Appreciating that “we need to disrupt ourselves before we get disrupted”, as Haier's chairman and chief executive Zhang Ruimin has said, the company developed a ‘platform ecosystem’, where employees can pitch their ideas – which often randomly emerge from customer interactions or associations of new data-points – to an investment committee.
Haier has developed a digital ecosystem around users in which the traditional product company has become an Internet-of-Things company with the user at its core. A central database, called U+, is at its heart. The most interesting ideas are developed into ‘micro-enterprises’, many of which scale fast using the Haier platform. A culture of innovation is being encouraged by rewarding autonomous decision-making, and mandating employee teams to find external partners to develop ideas.
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Other organizations have focused on tactics such as random coffee trials, where people who have not met yet (at an acquired company, for example) are randomly paired up over lunch, as well as the removing of barriers to serendipity such as endless and often senseless meetings and memos.
All this reflects a world where uncertainty presents a challenge but also a potential opportunity. Instead of insulating themselves from it, the best organizations build an affinity for the unexpected and, in so doing, transform a threat into an opportunity. Digital tools – easier changed and adapted than physical structures – help accelerate this process.
In a world dominated by rigour and efficiency, overcoming the perception of serendipity as loss of managerial control, and seeing it rather as a sign of an open mind and a positive corporate culture, is crucial to avoid burying potentially serendipitous, valuable outcomes. In settings such as nuclear reactors, however, the usual caveats apply.