Seeking Serendipity

Serendipity is finding something valuable by chance, a fortuitous discovery. Serendipity in business could mean tripping over the next Google by accident. Or spotting an opportunity you weren’t looking for in a corporate blind spot.

Finding such rare gems is naturally desirable, especially to investors, so how can businesses make serendipitous discoveries more likely?

The word ‘serendipity’ comes from an ancient story of 3 Persian princes from Serendip (modern-day Sri-Lanka) whom, by a series of accidental findings, deduced the passage of a blind, lame, toothless camel carrying honey, butter and a pregnant woman.

Central to the story yet perhaps lost in translation is the idea that the princes combined accidental observations with ‘sagacity’ – curiosity, insights, perception and knowledge – to perform a deduction. Like detectives or scientists they used their brains to stitch together isolated clues found in plain sight to envisage a camel-like whole.

Our noblemen may have been lucky to spot some clues but they needed knowledge to recognise their relevance. They then needed curiosity to seek more evidence and meaning with which to construct a hypothetical camel scenario. Luck played a part but so did their analytical and strategic thinking skills.

Humans find it hard to disentangle luck and skill, preferring to construct causal stories to explain events than accept randomness we can’t control. Claims for superior skill in situations which are in fact dominated by luck will eventually converge by the magic of ‘regression to the mean’. Low performance follows high performance and the system self-balances over time.

We’re especially prone to the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ which ascribes events to the actions of individuals and ignores situational chance. We’re quick to construct stories which claim credit for success and equally quick to blame others for failure. Wildly swinging sales figures or SLAs are fertile ground for these stories when the predictability of a process ought to be the focus of improvement efforts.

This attribution error could mean that we’re already getting serendipity but we’re busy patting ourselves on the back for it. Or maybe we want events to seem like luck rather than admit a lack of foresight before they dropped in our lap? We might even be missing out on beneficial events which bypass our attentional RADAR. If any of these are true, can we even trust our perception of serendipity?

There will always be positive or negative Black Swan events, the outliers described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. These are the ‘unknown unknowns’, whose occurrence or consequences can’t be predicted. We can be ready to seize an opportunity or be resilient to a risk but these future events can’t be inferred from the past.

For other types of events, we could think about serendipity as a chain of probability ending with the valuable goal. Applying Systems Thinking about the causal influence of desirable events would help us to build a richer picture of beliefs and the links between them. Looking at the likelihood of causes and the magnitude of their effects might lead us to experiment with interventions to create systemic shifts. These interventions – like skill – make fortuitous events more likely and more beneficial, an imperfectly-engineered serendipity.

Like the clues in the story, the information we need is probably already out there. Like the inquisitive Persian princes we need to detect it, see its insights and hypothesise a solution. We probably wouldn’t see successful goal-achievement as serendipitous though, we’d now be claiming it as better strategic decision-making.