13 October 2022
Author: Martin Raymond and Dr. Christian Busch
Some 30–50% of major scientific breakthroughs, says Busch, who also teaches innovation and leadership at New York University where he is the director of the CGA Global Economy Program, ‘emerge as a result of such accidents, or co-incidences; one chemical spills into another, cells combine in dirty petri dishes, or there is a chance encounter between experts whose incidental conversations spark new insights. The greatest opportunities, for individuals and organisations alike, are often a matter of serendipity.’
But opportunity, or serendipity as he sees it, doesn’t knock – you must knock on it. And because this knocking – physical, societal, cultural or situational – is a probabilities and numbers game, the more open we are and the more knocking we do, the more we place ourselves in the pathway of those accidents, coincidences and unexpected happenings that contain within them these hidden opportunities. It is, as he says, all about connecting the dots (as I also explain in my Strategic Networking Masterclass Series). But we still have to learn and cultivate those skills that allow us to connect the said dots in the first place: skills that teach us to be more actively open and aware; thought processes that show us how to reframe challenges as opportunities; and life skills that show us how and why we should take a less structured, more chance-friendly approach to making decisions or creating those five-year plans about tomorrow. ‘Recent research in management, library science, neuroscience and psychology has shown that overly structured goals limit serendipity while aspirational goals make serendipity more likely.’
Removing chance, he says, can also remove our ability to think laterally or more creatively about a problem. ‘For example, a focus on ‘food shortage’ or ‘food scarcity’ can lead development efforts to over-focus on one-sided design on food, while it should actually be focusing more broadly on nutrition.’
Finally, as he puts it, it’s important to see serendipity not as randomness but as a quality or a process in which we can be actively involved. ‘It’s the kind of thing that happens all the time. We might not recognise it as serendipity, but it has all the key characteristics: a chance event appears in our lives, we notice it, pay attention to it and link it to an unrelated fact that we’re also aware of. We connect the two and then follow through with a bit of determination, leading to a solution to a problem that often we didn’t know we had.’
You can listen to Christian and my Back to the F**kture podcast below, or find out more about Christian and his work here.