How can we develop muscles for the unexpected and cultivate our own "smart luck"?
- 5 Min Read
In a world full of uncertainty, our ability to turn the unexpected into positive outcomes – and to “cultivate serendipity” – becomes paramount. How can we do this for ourselves and our companies? In this article, Dr. Christian Busch explains.
“Blind luck” and serendipity (“smart luck”) are two very different things. In contrast to blind luck that just happens to us, serendipity we can influence. It depends on our response to unexpected situations around us. The “serendipity trigger” – like running into someone in the supermarket – is random. But our response – like using a hook – is in our control. Once we realise that serendipity is not about a mere coincidence but is actually the process of spotting and connecting the dots, we can start cultivating it.
My decade-long research on leading companies, social enterprises, CEOs and thought-leaders has shown that many of today’s most inspiring leaders, consciously or subconsciously, have developed “muscles for the unexpected” – and that there is a science-based framework that can help us do so.
Regardless of where and by what means, serendipity can help us turn unexpected encounters into impactful outcomes and create lasting value for individuals, teams and organisations. It can help people form deeper and more meaningful connections, and create a sense of belonging. But how can we achieve these seemingly lofty goals?
1 – Set serendipity hooks
Rethinking how we relate to others allows us to see bridges where others see holes. On an individual level, we can accomplish this by something as simple as asking questions differently.
When meeting someone new, we can avoid the basic “what do you do?”. Instead, we can opt for a more open-ended question like “what do you enjoy doing?” or “what do you find most interesting about this project?” This avoids boxing the other person in a conversational corner, and opens the door to unique and potentially unexpected conversation topics that help us discover unexpected overlaps.
Equally, when on the receiving end of the question “what do you do?”, you can avoid going for the straightforward and predictable answers. Try instead to offer answers that cover a range of topics and interests. This way, we can set serendipity hooks by offering the other person material that could reveal areas of mutual interest and the foundations for a potentially valuable connection.
When Oli Barrett, a London-based entrepreneur, meets new people, he sets several hooks aimed at surfacing overlaps with the other person. If asked, “What do you do?” he will say something like, “I love connecting people, have been active in the education sector, and recently started thinking about philosophy, but what I really enjoy is playing the piano.” That reply includes four hooks: a passion (connecting people), a vocation (education), an interest (philosophy), and a hobby (playing the piano). If he merely responded, “I’m in education,” the potential for others to connect the dots would be quite small. But by setting several hooks, he increases the odds that the listener will relate to something.
Hooks allow others to find and latch onto something that relates to their lives or what they’re looking for, making serendipity more likely. Setting them is easier if we “have our story straight”: What are we passionate about, and what could we contribute that is relevant to the other person?
2 – Create meaningful interactions
At the organisational level, the foundations of serendipity can be created by encouraging individuals to meaningfully interact with those they might usually not interact with.
Practices like “random coffee trials” – encouraging people across the organisation get randomly matched for a “virtual coffee” – can be employed to pair individuals (or groups) from across an organisation to engage in quick in-person or video chats.
Facilitating these meets with thoughtful prompts (e.g., “what challenge are you currently facing in the organisation/how can I help?”) can guide participants down the path towards unexpected discoveries or relationships. Giving people the ability to experience random collisions with each other often leads to the occurrence of serendipity – but can also foster a sense of belonging.
3 – Enable serendipity spotting
Start asking team members or meeting attendees about any surprising and assumption-changing developments they came across recently This makes people look out for new, unexpected information that might lead to new product ideas such as the potato washing machine – but also makes meetings more fun!
4 – De-risk
To better foster the ability for individuals to create exciting new ideas and innovations, “de-risking” the process of voicing them can go a long way. At Pixar, Ed Catmull used to tell teams that “at the beginning, all ideas are bad” – to give people the license to voice ideas even they might not “feel ready”. Informal sounding boards or other simple mechanisms can be used to create a space where these ideas can be openly and safely challenged.
The post-Covid world we are emerging into offers vast opportunities and challenges. Remote work is here to stay one way or the other, and distance will remain a feature of much professional interaction. But the strategies we can use to cultivate serendipity can go a long way towards mitigating, even negating, this trend. The strategies we can use to cultivate serendipity are intensely communal, and heavily reliant on interpersonal interaction and communication. Along our path we’re virtually required to form new meaningful connections and engage with others in a more thoughtful way. Using these practices, organisations benefit not only from the positive outcomes made possible by ‘smart luck,’ but also from a more engaged community of employees. Then, we can start making accidents meaningful – and also create more meaningful accidents, turning the unexpected from an anxiety-enhancing threat into an ally.
Prof. Dr. Christian Busch, FRSA, teaches at New York University and at the London School of Economics, co-founded Leaders on Purpose and Sandbox Network, and is the author of the bestselling book Connect the Dots: The Art & Science of Creating Good Luck, a “wise, exciting, and life-changing book” (Arianna Huffington).
The author is grateful to Amy Kirkham for the excellent editorial support.