Creating serendipity in the workplace

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Mar 07 2022 by Christian Busch Print This Article

Everyone experiences good or bad luck at some point in their lives, like being born into a loving or not so loving family. This 'blind luck' just happens to us, with us having no control over it. But there's another form of luck – 'smart luck,' or serendipity – that we can influence. What if luck isn't as blind as we thought, but is instead something we can cultivate in the workplace and beyond?

Over the course of a decade, my research on major companies, incubators, and social enterprises has shown that many of the world's most inspiring individuals – CEOs, thought leaders, and entrepreneurs – have either consciously or subconsciously proven able to cultivate and capitalize on such luck. In effect, they developed a "muscle for the unexpected". But how can we grow this muscle in the context of hybrid professional environments?

Virtual conferences and telecommunications served a valuable purpose during the pandemic, and in many cases are here to stay in emerging hybrid arrangements. But reliance on these methods, and the distance the pandemic forced, often removed the valuable and random unexpected moments we may encounter during our days. It often robbed us of those "water cooler moments" in the office, where inspiration could have struck and ideas may have been exchanged.

But whether we stay virtual or go back to the office – or do a mixture of both – there are effective ways how we can "recreate water cooler moments". By working to cultivate the occurrence of such encounters using the strategies below, everyone in the workplace can stand to benefit and contribute towards making this year one of serendipity and success:

1. Create Random Virtual Collisions: If you are in charge of a team, you can use practices such as "random coffee trials", during which you randomly match people across the organization for a "quick virtual coffee". It can be facilitated with an inspiring prompt (e.g., "what challenge are you currently facing in the organization/how can I help?"), and usually not only leads to recreating "watercooler moment" serendipity, but also helps develop a deeper sense of belonging towards the company. Anything that can maximize the potential for person-to-person interactions can help achieve little sparks of serendipity.

2. Set Serendipity Hooks: Whenever communicating with someone, give 2-3 concrete examples of your current interests and objectives. Casting these "hooks" increases the chance that you and the other person ("coincidentally") latch onto common ground and shared passions – triggering serendipity and growth.

3. Ask Questions Differently: Imagine meeting a new person at an event, either virtual or in-person. Many of us might go on autopilot and ask the dreaded "So what do you do?", which tends to box the other person into an awkward corner leading to small-talk. Cultivating smart luck for ourselves means asking more open-ended questions, like "What do you find most interesting about the project you're working on?" or "What brings you here?" Such questions open up conversational possibilities that might lead to intriguing – and often serendipitous – outcomes.

4. Enable Serendipity Spotting: Alertness is of crucial importance to noticing unexpected events and capitalizing on them. Some companies have integrated practices like asking team members in weekly meetings if they came across surprising or unexpected encounters over the last week and, if so, did it change their assumptions? But if we want people to come up with new insights or ideas, we also need to "de-risk" the process of voicing them. We can learn from companies such as Pixar, where, in meetings, executives highlighted that most ideas are bad at the beginning. Then, "imperfect" ideas, solutions or processes are used as the foundation of an iterative process that contributes to ongoing learning and improvement.

5. Reframe: Accepting imperfection as part of life allows us to more easily reframe situations so that where others might see a problem (say, unexpected budget constraints), you see an opportunity (making the best out of whatever resources are at hand), thus allowing more creative outcomes to emerge. That's also where rituals such as "post mortems" or "project funerals" come in, where people openly and frequently talk about ideas that did not work out. Importantly, this is not about celebrating failure – it's about celebrating the learning that comes from unexpected places. Oftentimes, serendipity happens when people "coincidentally" realize that an idea that didn't work in one context, might work in another. In other words, look out for silver linings, and you may be rewarded with serendipitous results.

Make no mistake, hard work and talent still prove worth their weight in gold – but why not work hard to get luckier? As we confront the future of work, we're presented with the opportunity to cultivate 'smart luck', and jump on unexpected encounters. And in the process, we can create great value for our teams, our companies, and ourselves.


About The Author

Christian Busch
Christian Busch

Dr Christian Busch teaches at New York University and LSE and is the author of Connect the Dots: The Art & Science of Creating Good Luck.