The Key to Innovation: Serendipity

by Rod Collins

When was the last time you saw the label “New and Improved!” on a product in the grocery store? If you were born before 1980, you may realize it’s been a long time since you’ve seen the label that was a staple of product marketing just a few decades ago. Thirty years ago, change was incremental and driven by corporate planning departments searching for competitive advantage in markets of look-alike products. Business change was so subtle in the later decades of the twentieth century that consumers had to be told when things were new.

Those days are long gone. Thanks to the sudden and rapid emergence of the technology revolution, change is fast, furious, and ever-present. In fact, the very nature of change has changed. Change is no longer incremental; it’s now radically disruptive. For example, while the people at Blackberry were thinking of ways they could incrementally improve their wildly successful product, Apple introduced the iPhone, and, in an instant, reshaped the personal device market. In the wake of the technology revolution, the cadence of change has shifted form “new and improved” to “replace and displace.” If companies want to keep pace with this cadence, they need to be designed for innovation.

Designing companies for innovation is not as easy as it may sound. When managers realize that innovation is mission critical, their first instinct is often to set up a new department, put somebody in charge, and hold that person accountable for the new function. Unfortunately, while well intentioned, these so-called innovation initiatives rarely produce real results. That’s because innovation is not a department; it’s a way of thinking and acting that radically alters the fundamental DNA of a business and its management so that creativity becomes the fundamental fabric of the enterprise.

Traditional organizations are not designed for creativity; they're designed for planning and control. They assume that the future is an extrapolation of the past, business success is primarily about executing business plans, and the best way to organize large numbers of people is to distribute them into discreet functional departments. Innovative companies, on the other hand, operate from a very different set of assumptions. They understand that, in rapidly changing times, the future is likely to be very different from the past, business success is about having the wherewithal to quickly adapt to changing markets, and the best way to organize large numbers of people is to enable the constant cross-pollination of ideas. Setting up innovation departments doesn’t work because innovation isn’t something that’s planned and manipulated; it’s something that’s facilitated and emerges. Functional organizations have trouble innovating because they kill the key ingredient of innovation: serendipity.

Serendipity means finding things that we are not looking for that turn out to be very valuable. Serendipitous discoveries are not usually random events, but rather connections or insights that occur when we are searching for one thing only to find something else. In moments of serendipity, we discover what we didn’t know we didn’t know. That’s what happened when Larry Sanger, the editor of a struggling online encyclopedia, learned about wikis from a friend over dinner and renamed his revamped project Wikipedia.

Serendipity is what happens when we make unusual connections and create possibilities that never existed before. For example, the idea of combining a phone and your library of music is an unusual connection that no one had ever thought of until the iPhone. Steve Jobs understood that serendipity was the pathway to creativity and innovation, which is why he never divided Apple into functional divisions. He wanted the engineers and the designers to be in constant contact to enable the serendipitous possibilities that could emerge from constantly bumping elbows. Promoting serendipity is also the reason that Marissa Mayer ended telecommuting at Yahoo. She had learned from her days at Google that physically being together is a necessary venue for the cross-pollination of ideas.

If innovation is important to your company’s business success, don’t set up an innovation department. Instead, change the fundamental DNA of your organization so that it becomes a breeding ground for serendipity. The innovation that will flow from the unusual connections among all your people will far exceed the best-laid plans of any departmental leader.

Rod Collins


Rod has more than 30 years of experience in management positions of increasing responsibility in the healthcare industry. Rod is an innovative executive leader with sustained success in achieving financial, operational, and market growth objectives in challenging environments. He has extensive experience in serving as a catalyst for positive change and in building highly collaborative organizations.

Rod is also a member of our Speakers Bureau.


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