Why serendipity is no accident


Serendipity is about making desirable discoveries. Without it, we wouldn’t have penicillin, the microwave or the post-it note. But can it be quantified?

To find out, I went to a workshop on Serendipity In Design, led by Dr Stephann Makri. I’ll be honest. As a rational UX person I thought this was going to be high on the creative fluff spectrum. I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Serendipity can’t be quantified, but it’s the linchpin of innovation. Creating situations that lead to discoveries can help to propel products, services and experiences into the world.

The ripple of a brilliant discovery starts with a group of people. Fortunate surprises (or serendipity) cross-pollinate and nurture new ideas. Sounds lovely. But what can business owners do to engender this?

If finding a winning idea to improve or launch new services is like winning the lottery, then tapping into the highly subjective insights, intuitions, and hunches of individual employees (and testing those insights) can be a valuable exercise, as it can give business owners a better shot at unearthing opportunities that may otherwise have been missed.

A scientist’s best friend

The Nobel Prize laureate Paul Flory says that significant inventions are not ‘happy accidents’. Training ourselves to be observant and to spot patterns in chaos can generate research ideas or lead to valuable conclusions. So when loads of researchers work together and they’re tasked with observing data in lots of different ways, maybe that’s like buying hundreds of lottery tickets.

And designers? Where do we even begin with all this serendipity malarkey?

If intangible ideas are lucky and random by nature, how on earth can we set out to meet the needs of our audiences and delight them? In no particular order, Dr Stephann’s tactics for sewing the seeds of serendipity included: being observant, making mental space, relaxing boundaries, seizing opportunities, learning from the past, spotting patterns in chaos and learning to connect gaps.

Coming back to the earlier analogy, if using these tactics is like buying lottery tickets in the hope of arriving at a good idea, then the laws of probability suggest that the more we practice them, the more likely we are to hit the jackpot.

With thanks to Dr Stephann Makri

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