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Design for Collaboration, Plan for Serendipity


Posted by on February 20, 2012

Last week I wrote an article on “designing for collaboration” and this got me thinking a lot about serendipity which is the unexpected occurrence of events in a beneficial way.  Within organizations this can be something such as an employee finding another employee to connect with to help on a project, ideas being shared which then turn into revenue generating or cost cutting projects, finding some piece of useful but perhaps unexpected information, and a host of other things.

This made me think that serendipity within the organization should be more than this unexpected “happy” thing we hope will happen.  Instead we should plan for it to happen.  I started going through some of the collaboration case studies I have put together and recalling the many conversations I have been having with clients and colleagues at organizations from around the world.  Every person at every company I talked to has had or has heard of their fair share of serendipitous occurrences at their organization.  It’s something we should expect to happen and something we should plan to happen as a result of deploying the new collaboration tools and strategies we have today.

There are a few things we should know about serendipity if we are to plan for it.  Typically serendipity has a better chance of happening among a larger group of people, oftentimes a group that doesn’t know each other well.  Within organizations serendipity also happens when an employee happens to come across something or someone.  So knowing these things how can we start to plan for serendipity?

There are a few things organizations can do:

  • Allow as many employees as possible to have access to collaboration tools within your company (I understand that sometimes you start with a pilot and a smaller group)
  • Make it easy for employees to search for other  people and for information
  • Make it easy for employees to discover other people or information (for example an activity stream that allows employees to see what others are working on and doing)
  • Encourage, educate, train, and provide incentives to employees to collaborate
  • Make sure the tools you deploy are simple and intuitive

The point of this is to move beyond hoping for serendipity to expecting and perhaps even cultivating it within our organizations.  Now I don’t think serendipity alone can always make a valid use case or piece of value (sometimes it can), but, we still need to recognize the fact that oftentimes great ideas and things happen in this serendipitous way regardless of how hard we try to force them to come naturally.

I also strong believe that serendipity and innovation go hand in hand for we oftentimes innovate when we get that “light bulb” over our heads, that “aha” moment that can come at any time when something or someone reminds us of an idea (or creates a new idea in our heads).

Although serendipity is unexpected perhaps we can help it happen more often just by doing the things mentioned above, we should stop hoping for serendipity and start planning for it.

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  • http://twitter.com/AnaDataGirl Ana Silva

    Really liked this post Jacob, thank you for sharing. I’m a huge fan of the concept of serendipity and I definitely think it has a place in business!
    I gave a talk last year about embracing serendipity in one’s life, so I invite you to check it the slides here (http://artlifework.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/embrace-change-embrace-serendipity/) and the video (http://artlifework.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/video-embrace-change-embrace-serendipity/) in case you are curious.

    I recommend the excellent book by John Hagel & Co “The Power of Pull” that has very interesting tips on stimulating serendipity.

    I’m also looking forward to reading the upcoming book “Get Lucky” by Thor Muller and Lane Becker from GetSatisfaction on “planned serendipity”.

    • http://www.thefutureorganization.com jacobmorgan

      Hi Ana,

      Thanks or the kind words and links to the books and presentation. I have the Power of Pull but didn’t know the folks at Get Sat were writing a book, I know them pretty well so I’ll send them a note to get more info.  

      Thanks again!

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  • http://www.duperrin.com/english Bertrand Duperrin

    In my opinion serendipity can’t be planned. Matter of nature. What we need is to optimize probability, making serendipity more likely to happen. Not easy but there are ways to explore : social analytics, social BI and, in one word, bringing social relevantly into the context of business.

    • http://www.thefutureorganization.com jacobmorgan

      Hi Bertrand,

      Serendipity is something you can certainly plan on happening within your organization instead of just assuming it will happen.  Perhaps the analogy isn’t exactly on point but it’s similar to a college graduate trying to get a job.  There are certain things job applicants can do to improve their chances of getting hired vs just showing up.  That’s what I’m trying to say here, instead of just deploying tools (showing up) there are things companies can do to help ensure that serendipity will happen more often.

      Perhaps “plan” wasn’t the best word to use and I should have gone with something like “help” “foster” or as Ana suggested “stimulate”

      As always thanks for the comment!

  • http://twitter.com/ClaudeSuper Claude Super

    I agree with Bertrand!
    How can you plan serendipity (it’s a paradox)?
    Enterprises can optimize the conditions for more serendipity and try to take advantage of what could happen, but if they want to plan something, it’s a classic case (specially in innovation processes), very different, and obviously far from serendipity

    • http://www.thefutureorganization.com jacobmorgan

      Hi Claude,

      Thanks for the comment, I responded to Bertrand’s comment please see below.  I think the word “plan” may not have been the best choice for this!

  • http://twitter.com/AnaDataGirl Ana Silva

    Agree with both Bertrand and Claude. Probably stimulate or facilitate are better words than plan in the context of serendipity. 

    • http://www.thefutureorganization.com jacobmorgan

      Hi Ana,

      I agree, I think “stimulate” would have been a better word to use in this case, thanks for the comment!

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