Serendipity is hard work


“The storms of creative destruction are blowing us to a better place”. This is a quote directly from “Megachange, the world in 2050”. If you watch the technology trends, there is no question about it. Big data, the internet of things, social media, genetics, biology, quantum computing are all big waves. In that context, innovation and future proofing your business, become more and more important.

Innovation as the key challenge

99% of our clients are now struggling with innovation as their key challenge. Companies need to become asymmetric. They need to embrace the unexpected. They need to be able to cope with chaos, hyper-competition, uncertainty and change. They need to embrace ambiguity, disruptions and turbulence. They need to rehearse the future and serendipity is a big part of the scenarios. Optimisation is a given, not a distinctive feature anymore. What set the standards in one market, sets the standard for all. Innovation and opportunity spotting will give you the edge.

Explosive mix

We have read many books on innovation. My favourites are “Business model innovation factory”, “Makers” and “Digital disruption”. Mix it with some books on future trends (like Megachange), and you have an explosive mix of big bang disruption and innovation.


Serendipity is interesting. There are not that many books on that subject. Surprisingly so. In commodity hell, happy accidents will become more and more important as early warning signals for a potential opportunity.

The science of serendipity

“The science of serendipity, how to unlock the promise of innovation” by Matt Kingston, talks about serendipity as the raw material for innovation. In fact, the book is not about serendipity at all; it is about successful innovation.

Serendipity is hard work

Matt Kingston argues that happy accidents are hard earned. You need to create the connections, collisions, stimulus and “fill your mental filing cabinet” to create the connection, the serendipity and the innovation. Serendipity is an application of connections, not a random process. He makes the point that serendipity is not creativity. Creativity is futile; it is about commercial launch of an idea.

Innovation is a contact sport

In his view, innovation is a contact sport (putting a baby in the boxing ring). Innovation is extremely social. It is people sparking of people. Innovation is tough, particularly in big organisations.


Innovation, therefore, needs to be humanised and taken away from complex business terminology. It needs a goal people can identify with (“putting a dent in the universe’, Steve Jobs). A rally cry if you want. And it needs a deep, deep understanding of the customer.

Posh Spice wanted to be as famous as Persil Automatic. Kennedy wanted a man on the moon. It needs to be expressed in every day, blunt language and needs to appeal to basic human instincts.

Game of two halves

It is a game of two halves. Colliding with as much stimulus as possible, then seize on the connections and do something with it. Not creativity. Active serendipity and innovation.

The ideal innovator

The ideal innovator according to Matt is intuitive, agile, ambitious, with a small ego, able to make your own decisions. Not afraid to leave the company. Values diversity. Collaborator (as distinct from team worker, because collaboration is more robust). The master plumber of the organisation. External facing. Has audacity. Has passion. Has the ability to listen. Can go expansive as well as reductive. Goes with guts. Is capable of finishing things off. Note that creative is not mentioned.

Lenses of provocation

Innovation is fuelled by new insight. To create that insight you need lenses of provocation as the raw material for serendipity and innovation. Which means you need to bust the silos and go to the margins. Meet the angry, the ambivalent, the rejecters, the do-it-yourselfers. Find extreme and eccentric users.

Prepare your mind

Other ways to prepare your mind:

  • Imagine if you were addressing a five-year-old.
  • What if you break all the rules in your industry?
  • What does nature tell you? (The bullet train is based on Kingfishers)
  • What do related worlds tell you? (BP invigorate is based on insights from a herbal doctor)
  • Surf the net
  • Map the flow of can and profit across the value chain (read “The wide lens”)
  • Use value maps
  • Randomise tools on your smartphone
  • Role play customers (good for breaking down cynical executives)
  • Walk in the customer’s shoes
  • Look for the contradiction

Make it real

And then you have to make the ideas real. Create the right environment (both physical and mental), give it focus with a limited scope and with constraints, create a sense of urgency and intensity, get a good ringmaster and get some handpicked customers.

Develop prototypes, Ask the questions (who, how, when, what, whom, where). Start co-creating with your customers. Use different media. Experiment. Start fast and start quickly. And keep it low cost so you can keep experimenting. Go radical. Explore alternatives.

Key question; “What would MacGuyer do?”

Getting innovation accepted in the organisation

The book looses momentum at the end when it starts talking about how to get the organisation to accept the new ideas. Although we know from bitter experience how important it is. Here are his tips:

  • Get contact with the enemy as quick as possible. Good enough is good enough
  • Make sure the prototype is not too finished. Something that is too polished does not invite comment. Commenting makes people part of the innovation.
  • Operate in stealth mode.
  • Watch the energy management of the group. There are lots of ups and down. If members of the group get disheartened or even disruptive, it could kill the project. No festering. Open communication. Avoid the innovation doom loop
  • Don’t underestimate the physical environment. Make all ideas visible (so they are not hidden on a hard drive). Create collisions (office design, farmhouse kitchen, watering holes, creative ninjas). Keep it light.
  • It will need leadership involvement and buy-in from the top. This included getting a very careful framing (why, how) of the challenge. The organisation needs to know why it is important and what is in and out of scope.
  • Keep the teams small (pizza teams) and focus on collaboration rather than on the team.
  • Narrative is everything. Frame the story. Create the symbols and use the grapevine to percolate your messaging.
  • Let a 1000 flowers bloom (or kiss a lot of frogs)
  • Make metrics meaningful. Focus on “how much to find out if it works” vs “how much will we make”. “Digital disruption” uses the metric ROD  (return on disruption).
  • Introduce business leaders to consumers. Makes them realise how far removed they are from the real world. Great to kill off the cynics.
  • Celebrate all the successes and build pockets of optimism.

Cracking book

Serendipity (as a search term and as part of my research in asymmetric management) got me to this book. I am glad it did. It is a cracking book that makes innovation real. Not many books on innovation do that.




sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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