Ways We Innovate: Make Serendipity Our Good Buddy

The Popsicle was invented by enterprising an 11-year-old called Frank Epperson in 1905, who left a glass of soda on his San Francisco front porch with a stirring stick still it. The next day, after a cold night, the drink had frozen. Frank pulled the stick and, to his surprise, the drink came with it. Nine years later, he patented them as “Popsicles”.

If you haven’t heard the word serendipity, its time to not only put it into your lexicon, but to live it and breathe it. If you want to be innovative, your culture needs to not only support serendipity, but encourage it.

Serendipity: the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. “a fortunate stroke of serendipity” Sometimes known as a “happy accident”

Where does innovation come from? Typically, it starts with a problem: someone is having trouble doing something, and there are no solutions, so they put together a solution for that problem, which may or may not be a new, original, innovation.

On the other hand, if you look at a number of truly breakthrough innovations, they didn’t come from someone trying to solve a specific problem. They came out of a mistake, an error, or even more commonly, a juxtaposition of something not commonly juxtaposed. Where things not commonly mixed together are mixed together to come up with something new and different. This is the basis of a lot of innovative new products and services.

How do you foster a culture of innovation via serendipity? Well, first of all you don’t force your employees to come to work, work in the same location, day-in, day-out. You don’t keep their noses to the grindstone at their jobs the entire time they are at work. You don’t have them sit in endless, repeated meetings over and over again.

You encourage them to have a flexible work schedule. You encourage them to have a flexible location. You encourage them to be open to new ideas which can come from any place at any time. You purposely set up an environment and culture where your people can experience new things and new people all the time.

You can’t just sit your people in a room and say “Innovate!” Your people need new experiences, new locations, new connections, in order to truly build an innovative workforce.

If you asked me today “Chris, I need to start a company with innovation at its core. How would you do it?” this is what I’d say:

  1. Don’t have an office. I often wonder why anyone has an office at all. If you ask me, a no telecommuting policy, forcing people into an office M-F ends up reducing innovation, instead of increasing it
  2. Don’t encourage work from home either, encourage work from everywhere. Let your people, no ENCOURAGE your people to work everywhere but in a home office, a coffee shop, the park, a co-working space. But unlike work or school, move from place to place. Move to new physical locations all the time, even during the day – new places mean new connections and new ideas.
  3. Have the fewest possible meetings and conference calls – yes you might need a few of these to keep people on track – but after that, leave them alone – are they adults that you can trust, or not?
  4. Make your whole company agile, not just your programming methodology. go back and read my post on Agile Eating The World
  5. Use technology to let people know whats going on – Slack etc. Collaboration doesn’t require face-to-face physical connection.
  6. Set up a safe place for your employees to report innovative ideas from Day One.

Encourage your people to experience new experiences. Pay for them to go to Burning Man, or Electric Daisy, or SXSW or CES. Let them experience new things, then let them generate new connections and new ideas.

Encourage those happy accidents by strategically placing them in the world, and let them roam free. You’d be surprised at what comes back to you.