”For almost two centuries, Spain has hosted an enormously popular Christmas lottery. Based on the payout, it is the biggest lottery in the world and nearly all Spaniards play. In the mid-1970s, a man sought a ticket that ended in 48. He found a ticket, bought it, and won the lottery. When asked why he was so intent on finding that number, he replied, “I dreamed of the number seven for seven nights. And seven times seven is 48.”
Serendipity? Hardly – Luck? For sure!
This great example illustrates the paradox which we encounter when defining the role of luck while harnessing serendipity. The emergence of terms like ”Planning for serendipity”, ”Engineering serendipity” and ”Serendipity management” indicates that at least in the innovation landscape there is a well defined need to control the process of serendipity and to eliminate the effect of any luck. The objective seems to be to make serendipity somehow manageable, and by definition that might be against the core characteristics of serendipity. How much can we expect the unexpected, before it becomes expected? A dilemma waiting to be solved.
To analyze the dilemma we need to compress the various elements of serendipity into some key factors. I have understood, that in SerenA project the defined key elements are listed as: unexpected encounter – insight – and value creation. There is no specific ”luck” element involved, but since the short version of Walpole’s definition of serendipity describes it lucky accidents, we can not totally ignore the element of luck here.
How much can we expect the unexpected, before it becomes expected?
If an unexpected event or encounter will turn out to be fruitful and create some value, will depend largely on one’s ability to discover and be insightful. Therefore, ”getting lucky” is in most cases a matter of preparedness and not a result of pure luck. Being passionate and feeling the flow turn out to be much more important than trying to find ways to be lucky.
Sometimes the positive value of a happy accident will be seen maybe many years after the initial encounter. Black Swans can lead to disaster or to prosperity on personal level, both happy and unhappy accidents can turn out to have positive or negative impacts and the borderline between serendipity and ”zemblanity” is blurred. Alexander Fleming didn’t probably feel too ”lucky” that morning he noticed that because of his sloppyness a piece of dirt –later on analyzed as mold – had contaminated his petri dishes. It was years afterwards, after his research had given positive results, when he was able to rate that accident as lucky.
If an unexpected event or encounter will turn out to be fruitful and create some value, will depend largely on one’s ability to discover and be insightful. Therefore, ”getting lucky” is in most cases a matter of preparedness and not a result of pure luck.
Muller and Becker surely take a different approach in their book ‘Get Lucky – How to Put PLANNED SERENDIPITY to Work for You and Your Business’. The dice on the book cover are maybe provocative, but surely raise questions.
The authors have done a great job, it’s an interesting book in many ways, illustrates great practical cases and gives some useful guidelines how to harness serendipity. But the straightforward approach towards ”…just becoming lucky and serendipity will follow” – attitude might even be harmful. After reading the book one might think, that ”luck” seems to be the most essential element of serendipity and to me that’s a pretty simplified approach.
To simplify complicated matters is challenging and needs a lot of competence and a comprehensive understanding of the phenomena. Unfortunately there is not yet enough validated research in this area, so all kind of ”shortcuts” still have a chance to succeed and get attention. My expectation – and concern – is that in near future serendipity will, partly because of these kind of highly commercialized initiatives (books, presentations, workshops etc), will become a ”buzz” word. And then it will follow the life cycle of terms like ”innovation” and ”innovative”. At the moment almost everything is innovative and the core definition of innovation is totally lost in many contexts. ”Innovation has become innoflation”, my favourite slogan, which I introduced few years ago. The same might happen to serendipity, soon everything will be ”serendipitous” and the term will start to pop up everywhere including advertisement, fashion etc. and unfortunately appear in many occasions widely misused.
For my personal research purposes I would like to find research and publications with a bit more comprehensive approach towards the element of luck and those linking theories. My understanding is, that there are only a few blog posts describing the connections of serendipity to fundamental theories – like theory of complexity. Certainly a more ambitious approach is urgently needed. Probably that time will come soon, when the research initiatives like SerenA have produced building blocks for the solid theoretical background of serendipity. And for this ambitious and pioneering work in serendipity research field I wish to all of us– best of luck!
This is my guest blog published on October 15th 2012 on Serena project pages