See bridges where others see holes

It is suspected that over 90% of disruptive innovations are the result of serendipity, and not of predictability and justifiable research.  

Prof. Marc Noppen: “As a pneumologist I frequently treat a collapsed lung: the cause of which is the presence of air in a normally airless chest cavity.  For decades this was treated by inserting a thick plastic suction tube into the chest cavity between two ribs.  An effective but nonetheless painful procedure that was developed during the Korean war to empty collapsed lungs in a field hospital.  When taking a drink with a colleague after surgery I suddenly thought: why not use a thin straw to treat a collapsed lung?   How much safer and less painful for the patient.  With much difficulty I finally managed to convince 10 colleagues to test it out.”

It was one such study that led to the amendment of guidelines for treating a collapsed lung all over the world.

The discovery of America by Columbus, the discovery of penicillin by Fleming, the discovery of gravity by Newton, even the discovery of the post-it by Art Fry: these were all ‘coincidental’ discoveries. Or perhaps not?

“Serendipitous innovations” have one important characteristic: they are made by individuals able to “see bridges where others see holes” and connect events creatively, based on the perception of a significant link.

Serendipity as a ‘strategic advantage’

It is suspected that over 90% of disruptive innovations are the result of serendipity, and not of predictability and justifiable research.  The term ‘serendipity’ was first used in 1754 by Horace Walpole, when referring to the Persian fairy tale “The Princes of Serendipity” upon making an unexpected discovery: the 3 princes were always making discoveries, both by accident and with their acumen, of things they were not actually looking for.

In a business context this has implications which are of strategic importance: Napier and Vuong define ‘serendipity’ as a strategic advantage to tap creativity with the organisation. Mintzberg also emphasized the importance of innovation and ‘emergent strategy’ across all levels of the organisation, as a complement to ‘deliberate strategy’, which is consciously determined by top management. Ikujiro Nonaka links it to the success of a number of Japanese companies: managers’ recognition of the ‘coincidental factor’ in innovation on the one hand, and, on the other hand, sharing and testing of staff’s often subjective insights and intuition throughout the company. One personal experience shared by Thomas De Groote, Yoshi Brian Kawabata and Gert in Japan: together they made an unconventional film about the Lock-up Café in Tokyo (don’t put the volume up too loud :)).

In 2012, while touring Japan, we also visited Nerima General Hospital. Dr. Shuhei Iida, general manager, shared their views on 20 years of kaizen and innovative thinking. His key message: it is our duty as leaders and managers to create an environment in which we continue to challenge ourselves and our staff. This applies not only to small improvements but also great inventions (where chance often plays a role). This is a key characteristic within Oriental leadership: the humility with which we consider these breakthroughs, the realisation that innovation is the result of 3 factors: ‘learning to look’, ‘acute thought’ and ‘quick and efficient action’. This is the reason why 2/3 of the world’s organisational transformations fail: management books describe success stories and successful leaders, not the system nor the leadership and organisational behaviour that allowed them to occur.
Gert Linthout

Serendipity is a capacity: 4 tips how to build it

How can you develop ‘serendipity’ as an organisational capacity? The uniqueness lies in the conviction that you can develop skills and a climate of ’serendipity’ rather than focusing on the individual breakthroughs themselves. Some tips:

1. Create a ‘xenophile’ environment

Research by Merton & Bart demonstrates the importance of the following: free association, an open and alert attitude to all things new and foreign (xenophile), as facilitated and stimulated by a social environment. As a leader you have the unique opportunity to define or relax the boundaries, thus creating an environment in which errors can be made and are encouraged. What kind of behavior do you encourage in your organisation? Do you focus on appreciating those who have come up with a successful idea or on those creating an environment in which this is possible? Do you go into the workplace to ask questions and test out ideas? Are you like a child, curious and imaginative? Do you also reveal your own fragility? Are you open about the mistakes you make? Then there’s a good chance that a culture will develop in which openness, curiosity and boldness are the focus;

2. Look beyond your own four walls

Look outside your organisation, beyond your sector, this is very often a source of ‘unique combinations and insights’. Go out looking for patterns, systems and behaviors that explain a certain innovation, rather than copying them. Watch out for ‘bench marking’; this has the tendency to destroy creative thinking;

3. Take a ‘challenging organisation’ to the next level

‘5x why’ may be the most simple, but it is also the most powerful technique within lean leadership. It gets each individual to think, and continuously challenge the status quo at all levels of the organisation. However, where continuous improvement is 80% focused on people’s own specific domain, you specifically encourage yourself and your staff to seek inspiration outside the normal working domain. This is facilitated by creating co-working spaces, attending networking events, by embedding cross-functional gemba walks in a structured manner, by adopting structured job rotation in your company, by organizing co-creation sessions with customers… Some organisations such as Zappos even go a step further and have redesigned their (silo) structure to follow a principle of self-management such as Holacracy. In this way autonomy and challenge are integrated into each employee’s daily work.

4. Use competitive intelligence

Create a strategic process to proactively search the outside world for information on products, customers, competitors and each aspect of the environment required by a leadership team to take important decisions in the organisation. Competitive intelligence is considered an important element in Ben Gilad’s Blindspots Analysis;

Be daring

Prof. Noppen: “I learnt lots by looking beyond our four walls and now apply this on a daily basis in my management role. To me ‘serendipity’ is about managing the future. My plea is for people to be more daring, for a “just-do-it” mentality and to combine this with a healthy dose of job-related knowledge and expertise. Don’t you fall flat on your face from time to time? Of course, but it’s the only way. As Winston Churchill once said:“Success consists of stumbling from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”.

In our society ’being daring’ has acquired a negative ring to it, and it implies ‘disobedience’ or ‘being naughty’. In the past however the meaning related to ‘being brave and courageous’.

Let us be daring more often. Let us show guts, fail often but persevere.

What will you dare to do tomorrow? Let us know!


About the authors:

Prof. Dr. Marc Noppen has specialized in pneunomology and is CEO of the University Hospital of Brussels.

Gert Linthout is business consultant at Möbius since 13 years, mainly focusing on operational excellence in industry and healthcare organizations. Both have worked together in this domain and share a passion for leadership, innovation and the… unexpected.

References and suggested reading:

  • Napier, Nancy K. and Vuong Quan Hoang. “Serendipity as a strategic advantage?” Strategic Management in the 21st Century; edited by Timothy J. Wilkinson., 2013, 1, 175–199.
  • Mintzberg. “Five Ps for strategy” in H. Mintzberg, J. Lampel, J.B. Quinn and S. Ghoshal “The Strategy Process: Concepts, Contexts, Cases”, 4th ed., Prentice Hall, 2003, p.5
  • Ikujiro Nonaka. p. 94 November–December issue of Harvard Business Review.
  • Barber, Robert K. Merton and Elinor (2006). The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 1–3. ISBN 0691126305.
  • Gilad, Ben (1994). Business Blindspots (First ed.). UK: Irwin-Probus.
  • Pneumothorax:

Thanks for reading

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