Strategy & LeadershipHR StrategyCultivating serendipity and harnessing uncertainty for organizational success

Cultivating serendipity and harnessing uncertainty for organizational success

Many organizations have been caught off-guard by the uncertainty and drastic change of 2020, and fear the potential consequences. But what if this didn't have to be the case? In this article, author and professor Christian Busch argues that it's time for modern businesses to begin cultivating and harnessing serendipity in order to generate organizational success.

30-second summary:

  • Many organizations are overwhelmed by the rapid change, but this can be viewed as an opportunity from a certain perspective
  • Christian Busch refers to this as ‘serendipity’, and argues that it can be harnessed in order to achieve organizational success
  • There are various techniques that can be employed in order to achieve this
  • This approach and mindset could help many businesses navigate through the rest of the pandemic disruption

Almost everyone feels completely out of their depth at some point in their lives. Despite the internal panic, most of us are able to hide it in one way or another as we go about our day-to-day, and many of us have learned to improvise. In fact, even the most powerful, successful, and seemingly in-control individuals in the most defined fields are often just ‘winging it’ in the pursuit of personal and organizational success.

At first, this may seem counter-intuitive; institutions and businesses invest a lot of time and money creating models and structures to ensure that every process, decision, and opportunity is as calculated and predictable as possible. But if there’s one thing that COVID-19 has taught us, it’s that placing unconditional trust in our existing models can mean being less prepared to handle the unexpected and failing to identify the real risks and opportunities. The truth is, no one has all the answers, and no one can predict the future – especially in the face of unprecedented uncertainty.

In order for job seekers and executives to advance in their careers, simply mitigating risk and uncertainty will no longer be a sufficient approach. Instead of perceiving this as a threat, they will need to redefine it as an ally and turn it into opportunity. Developing this ability to act on unplanned moments and apply proactive decision-making is all about developing a serendipity mindset. With this new approach, every interaction has the potential open a new path forward, and you begin to see bridges where others see gaps.

Our research with many of the world’s most successful business leaders – including over 30 of the world’s top CEOs – shows that they have developed the ability to cultivate serendipity (the “unexpected good luck resulting from unplanned moments, in which pro-active decisions lead to positive outcomes”, or “smart luck”). Here are some simple techniques to get you started in flexing your serendipity muscles.

Setting ‘hooks’

Serendipity hooks help people find ways to connect to you and vice versa, and are easily applicable to any interpersonal scenario, such as meeting a new client. The process begins when you utilize memorable or engaging talking points that provide relevant and varied aspects of yourself. For instance, if asked “What do you do?”, you can respond with several hooks: “I love developing educational technology”; “I recently started learning Russian”; “I just started up fashion startup, but what I really enjoy is photography”. There are four potential hooks here: a passion (developing educational technology), an interest (learning a language), a job description (a fashion start-up), and a hobby (photography).

By casting out this series of hooks, you are making it more likely for someone to connect with at least one of them. It gives others the chance to find and latch on to something that relates to their lives, and thus makes the occurrence of serendipity much more likely.

What’s more, hook-setting isn’t just limited to private conversations. Let’s say you are in a group with dozens of people at a virtual event during a Q&A; here, you can use just a single question to connect with an entire audience. For instance, you could say: “As someone who just went through (XYZ period) and aspires to do (XYZ activity), I was struck by what you said about (XYZ topic). What advice would you give to people like me?” Do not be surprised when people start connecting with you saying things like: “What a coincidence! I’m so glad you asked about XYZ, I went through XYZ too!”

Planting ‘serendipity bombs’

A low-risk strategy to expand your network and nurture the conditions for serendipity is planting ‘serendipity bombs’. This can be executed in a number of different ways. For example, writing speculative emails to people you admire and want to connect with can be surprisingly effective, especially if you tailor your email to reference a project they’ve been involved with. If the recipient is able to identify some mutual interest, they are more likely to find a reason to engage, and all of a sudden you will be on their radar.

Serendipity bombs work well when it comes to striving for organizational success, too. One method is to invite someone from a different department or function to coffee, or a video lunch. Managers can pair people randomly to spark new conversations and to help overcome feeling disconnected from the stay-at-home work environment. When team members are more engaged with other team members, new ideas are shared, new connections can be formed, and opportunities emerge.

Post-mortems

Don’t be alarmed by the name. Project post-mortems are about incentivizing teammates to share their ideas that did not work (which might serendipitously work out in other contexts) and discuss potential areas of improvement. Our research has shown that the survival of an enterprise depends on its ability to tackle uncertainty. Companies that encourage exploration, play, and experimentation are better equipped at embracing the unexpected, and are more likely to achieve organizational success in the long run This is a great way to make team members feel more included, connected, and motivated to share ideas.

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Organizational success through serendipity

Most top executives admit that they’ve achieved their positions through not only expertise, experience, and hard work, but also a degree of luck. Or rather, smart luck. A serendipity mindset is both a philosophy of life that many of the world’s most successful and joyful people have adopted in order to create meaningful lives, and a capability that each of us can develop. By embracing the unexpected and supporting those we work with to discover their best ideas and talents, unexpected discoveries can turn into positive outcomes. By toning our serendipity muscles, we can unleash human potential and harness positive coincidence in our lives.

This feature is based on the new book, The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck by Dr. Christian Busch, Director of the CGA Global Economy Program at New York University (NYU) & Visiting Faculty, London School of Economics (LSE).


Dr. Christian Busch is a professor at New York University (NYU), where he directs the CGA Global Economy Program. He is a Visiting Fellow at the Marshall Center, London School of Economics (LSE), and a co-founder of Sandbox Network and Leaders on Purpose. Christian is the author of The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Good Luck.

We thank Rayme Silverberg for great editorial support. 

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