In the past many discoveries and innovations have come by accident or by chance, rather than a team hurting their heads with too much innovation think, “no matter how much I try I just can’t think of an innovation”. It doesn’t usually happen if you sit around doing nothing, it happens when you are involved in life, participating, interacting, only it’s not what your chasing, it’s what happened on the way, it’s what’s triggered, it’s the accidents (the gifts from the gods;) etc…
It’s happened to all of us that we are researching on one task and come across a gem we can use for another task…or this gem may take our current task in a new and better direction. I think as long as we are participating and active we increase the opportunity to be exposed to more great information and people, it may just trigger something inside.
This catalyst, the spark happens by serendipity, here’s what wikipedia has to say at this point in time:
“Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely”
“It was once when I read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of…”
“…the word is the “sagacity” of being able to link together apparently innocuous facts to come to a valuable conclusion. Thus, while some scientists and inventors are reluctant about reporting accidental discoveries, others openly admit its role; in fact serendipity is a major component of scientific discoveries and inventions.”
“…agree that a prepared and open mind is required on the part of the scientist or inventor to detect the importance of information revealed accidentally”
And a memorable one, “Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer’s daughter.” Pek van Andel
The wikipedia page has a vast list of these accidental discoveries in the scientific fields and inventions, here are a few:
“Penicillin by Alexander Fleming. He failed to disinfect cultures of bacteria when leaving for his vacations, only to find them contaminated with Penicillium molds, which killed the bacteria. However, he had previously done extensive research into antibacterial substances.”
“Viagra (sildenafil citrate), an anti-impotence drug. It was initially studied for use in hypertension and angina pectoris. Phase I clinical trials under the direction of Ian Osterloh suggested that the drug had little effect on angina, but that it could induce marked penile erections.”
“Discovery of the principle behind inkjet printers by a Canon engineer. After putting his hot soldering iron by accident on his pen, ink was ejected from the pen’s point a few moments later.”
Then you have a military type invention like the internet which just can’t help breeding more invention, that’s the thing when you invent a tool that actually allows you to invent more tools…I don’t think we imagined e-commerce, blogging, social networking, wikis, etc…
If serendipity increases the chance of discoveries leading to innovation, then what better than a platform such as enterprise 2.0, where all can participate, interact and network.
I may be researching a few blog posts for my draft post on topicA, and links from post to post take me on another discovery, and I end up drafting 5 new posts…as I investigate these accidental findings I learn.
I browse a social bookmarks tag as part of research, and come across a great article, I then see articles from similar tags, and articles from a particular tagger, and before you know it, I’ve learnt more than I bargained for on this supposed 30 minute research window…see an indepth view.
I have my Twitter @replies turned on to full so I can eaves drop on conversations from people I follow, and the people they follow that I don’t…sometimes I come across some gems.
I search our internal blogosphere and come across an irrelevant post to my needs, but am able to leave a comment on this post as a possible solution. We work in totally different business units, live in different countries, and don’t know each other at all, yet because we both participate and are visible I increase my opportunity for serendipitous affairs, which can lead to innovation.
This serendipity can also be a product in aggregate. If everyone participates and networks on a platform we could view a tag cloud and see some emerging patterns…we could view the frequent tags and realise we need to take action on something, or realise the mood at the moment. Without a participation platform and tagging content, there is no way we would have known otherwise of these emergent patterns, and what they tell us.
The benefit of enterprise 2.0 is it helps us get our work done, share and evolve ideas, and connect with people, but at the same time the same platform exposes us to loads of know-how, quality stuff that we may discover on the way to somewhere else.
Conditions for Innovation
So not only is enterprise 2.0 about sharing know-how it’s about increasing the chances for innovation…see more.
Dave Snowden says KM is about supporting effective decision making and creating conditions for innovation. This really rings true in a KM 2.0 environment as we have the ability and are empowered to connect to the right people and know-how, and at the same time be almost always subject to the conditions of serendipity, which as we mentioned increases the chances of innovation.
He says it himself:
“…its not luck, and yes you can manage for it. By increasing the number and type of things that you pay attention too then you increase the chance of serendipity (which is what SenseMaker does) and various methods such as SNS increase the encounter rations with things which are unusual or novel.”
A comment from Wayne Zandbergen says, “…’serendipity’ happens to those who are prepared to notice it, rather than mere accident…” he goes on to examine the semantics of the term.
Luke Naismith on serendipity and synchronicity:
“He defined serendipity as those events that are somewhat unusual but that are noticed and in that noticing, provide some value to the observer. In contrast, synchronicity is the meaningful coincidence between two seemingly separate events – some form of meaningful relationship between causally unconnected events. I noted that it is often through serendipity, we can find synchronicity.”
“We talked about innovation and the role that people in organisations need to play of looking for the unexpected, those anomalies that fall outside the norm, and to try and ascertain the meaning behind that difference. It goes against the notion of seeking equilibrium or getting things back to the average”
Johnnie Moore points to a post on engineering serendipity:
“…an interesting paradox here, how can we engineer that which is meant to be fortuitous?”…I think we have answered this above, by networking in a participation culture.
Rod Boothby expands on emergence:
“Just as high-level patterns of intelligence emerge from separate brain cells or individual agents within a free market economy, groups can be motivated to create intelligent decisions in other circumstances.”
“Emergent intelligence only evolves when agents have the freedom to act independently. The traditional command and control structures employed by most large firms do not lend themselves to fostering this kind of independence”
“However, that does not mean that there isn’t still a roll of management to play. Their task now is to cultivate an environment that encourages innovation.”
…read more of this post about oblique control, kind of like the light constraints on a complex system.
To learn more Rod has a paper called, Turning Knowledge Workers into Innovation Creators.
“The edge of the organization is the source of innovation and growth. Its also where an organization can sense and respond to change.”
“…the edge is the only source of sustainable innovation, and the edge is becoming the core”
“Social interaction often precedes economic activity.”
“Otherwise known as cluetrain. Markets are conversations. Relationship before conversation before transaction.
Just as new solutions are emerging to enable effectiveness for the edge, it may be more critical than ever.”
KM 1.0 ain’t set up for serendipity, nor innovation
…instead we learn from failure and trial and error
I’m not going to get into this for the thousandth time, so you can read these posts about the “anticipating needs, or the maybe one day KM”
“Dave appears to share my disdain for the context-free capture and ‘codification’ of people’s business knowledge in massive ‘knowledge bases’ just in case someone else might be able to benefit from that knowledge sometime in the future (assuming they can find it).”
These blog posts point to Dave’s paper, Managing for Serendipity (alternate link), his offerings to encourage learning and knowledge transfer are: Narrative Databases, Social Network Stimulation, and Disruptive Pattern Breaking.
He concludes that, “…a major area of knowlege management practice should be to create worst practice systems on the grounds that they provide better and more resilient approaches to learning.”
We are not just talking about online here, serendipity and innovation happen using participative and emergent methods such as knowledge cafes, world cafes, anecdote circles, unconference, open space, etc…
Dave Gurteen has found a great quote by JK Rowling on failure and living:
“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.”
Jay Cross on Learning from worst practices:
“Stories of failures can be used to generate “worst case scenarios.” People learn more from avoiding failure than from affirming success.”
Mary Abraham on True leaders value mistakes:
“When you’re dealing with an organization that faces liability if it doesn’t reach the right result every time in a predictable, controlled fashion, mistakes take on an even greater importance. Consequently, there can be a tendency to sacrifice innovation and growth for predictability and control. In that environment, mistakes are barely tolerated and rarely encouraged. The problem is that an organization without mistakes is an organization without innovation and growth.”
Jevon MacDonald talks about Google’s trial and error, learning from failure approach…this reminds me of the Safe-Fail approach that I mention later on in this blog post.
Back to Enterprise 2.0
Patti Anklam refers to serendipity as “accidental collisions“:
“…how important it is for search engines to return information about our connections with people who may have the expertise and experience we need to tap. We must also arrange for people to bump into each other (in physical and virtual spaces) who may not know that there is experience available for the tapping. Jim calls this the art of making “accidental collisions” — causing people to bump into each other so they can whatever sparks may be, will ignite.”
“One thing I noticed in our search for an enterprise search tool is the serendipity factor. People were finding interesting and informative things that they did not expect to find.”
More on accidental collisions by Joe McKendrick:
“This is the old knowledge management conundrum — how can you capture and bottle informal, unstructured data? How do you capture serendipity — someone runs into a business colleague at an event, and learns that so-and-so is leaving because the company pulled support for a project? How do you take it out of peoples’ heads and digitize it?”
It seems a participation network (connected profiles) is always the answer here, as it mimics the conversational behaviours we have in the offline world. Who would have thought that MySpace and Facebook would have been the next innovation tools, see an example by James Dellow, on a bunch of guys forming a band by networking on MySpace. I too came across this scenario when I was listening to the local radio (RTR-fm) the other day when a local band (Apricot Rail) found each other and conversed on MySpace.
This kind of also ties in with Andrew McAfee’s rendition of the strength of weak ties, and expanded in to the enterprise 2.0 bullseye, specifically Facebook, and how the status updates of your weak ties may not be of much care to you usually, but perhaps something they update may be of use for a future need.
I like this quote from McAfee:
“…it can in fact be quite powerful because it’s a quick and easy way to form connections and make associations that might not ever occur otherwise.”
NOTE: Unlike KM 1.0 they are not anticipating this need, they are just updating their status, if you tune into them and it’s useful to you (anticipatory awareness), then the concept of KM has worked.
Brad Hinton too posts about innovation and network ties:
“The gist of the new Gratton book is that “innovation comes from people who cross boundaries (and) talk to people in all areas of the business and outside and bring foreign ideas into their own work”. Gratton rightly points out that most organisations don’t even realise the capacity and power of potential networks inside their own organisation - an untapped and relatively inexpensive resource.”
“A new employee often brings new insights and ideas to a new organisation because they have not been corralled into like-minded teams inside the organisation. Once people become ensconced with people of similar ideas and contexts, the opportunity for innovative ideas tends to break down.”
Jon Mell on serendipity and noise:
“The more you think about the random coincidences that happen on Twitter or on other social software tools, the more you realise that a lot of ideas and moments of serendipity actually come from noise.
So it’s not that noise is unwelcome, just that there is ‘good’ noise and ‘bad’ noise (spam). This relates to the idea that has been floating around the web recently that information overload is actually a filtering problem.”
More on noise by Read/Write Web:
“Some people call it “serendipity,” others call it “passive and opportunistic information acquisition.” (Erdelez, see below.) The less limited the boundaries of your scope of view are, the more likely you may be to find things you didn’t even think to look for.”
Before we move to the next section here are a few more “happy accidents“:
“An example is that of a drug company seeking an antacid based on amino acids, the building blocks of a protein. When the researcher, having inadvertently spilled some of the crystals, wet his finger on his tongue to turn a page in his laboratory notebook, he was astonished at the taste of sweetness. In this way, the artificial sweetener know as Equal or NutraSweet was born. In another instance, an engineer developing radar sets found that a candy bar in his pocket had melted. With the realization that the unit’s power device was emitting radio waves, the microwave oven was born.”
Examples of attraction and engagement
Dave Snowden on Innovation
Since serendipity may lead to innovation I’ve collected some quotes.
“Innovation happens when people use things in unexpected ways, or come up against intractable problems. We learn from tolerated failure, without the world is sterile and dies. Systems that eliminate failure, eliminate innovation.”
“…creativity is a symptom of innovation not its cause”
“I have long argued that there are three necessary, but not sufficient conditions for innovation to take place. These are:
1. Starvation of familiar resource, forcing you to find new approaches, doing things in a different way;
2. Pressure that forces you to engage in the problem;
3. Perspective Shift to allow different patterns and ideas to be brought into play.
Creativity is just one way, and not necessarily the most effective to achieve perspective shift. In fact I am increasingly of the opinion that creativity is not a cause of innovation, but a property of innovation processes, its something that you can use as evidence of innovation, but not to create it.”
What inspired this blog post…
Nassim Taleb (The Black Swan) on Trial and Error (stochastic tinkering) and Failure:
“We have psychological and intellectual difficulties with trial and error, and with accepting that series of small failures are necessary in life.”
Back to Nassim Taleb:
“In fact, the reason I felt immediately at home in America is preceisely because American culture encourages the process of failure, unlike the cultures of Europe and Asia where failure is met with stigma and embarrassment. America’s speciality is to take these small risks for the rest of the world, which explains this country’s disproportionate share in innovations. Once established, an idea or a product is later “perfected” over there”
This totally links up with Thomas Friedman’s (The World is Flat) thinking that America is an ideas and design country, which is then passed on to countries like China to process and manufacture. His notion is that America will always be the intelligent and innovative country in this respect, as manufacturing-type countries don’t have time to think as they are busy manufacturing.
Here are a few interesting quotes by Thomas Friedman:
“What the carpenter or nanny has to sell can be bought by only one factory or one family at a time…while what the software writer or drug inventor has to sell-idea based products-can be sold to everyone in the global market at once.”
This is something Nassim Taleb also talks about in relation to the scalability of idea vs labor, which I expand on. The corollary is that ideas based jobs is very competitive, there are many losers, that are not as secure as labor based jobs. At the country level what about all those people in America who are not idea’s inclined and are more labor type workers, how do they fit in an idea’s country.
“The ideal country in a flat world is the one with no natural resources, because countries with no natural resources tend to dig inside themselves. The try to tap the energy, entrepeneurship, creativity, and intelligence of their own people…”
[ADDED 13/10/08: Tony Hirst in the comments below surfaced this gem by Nanneet Bhusshan, well actually I used Tony’s tool, in which it then surfaced:
“INNOVATION IS AN EMERGENT FEATURE OF A SYSTEM!
When one starts - from any condition in a system, one doesnt know the end result although there is a desire to minimize entropy to reach the objective - sometimes the more one tries to reach the desired objective further one goes - in some cases, the objective may be achieved by moving away from the objective rather than towards it. The inherent stochasticity, entropy and unpredictability of Innovation emergence makes it a science closer to non-linear and complex systems rather than the linear system theory that we are taught!“]
[ADDED 13/10/08: I had some more Tumblr thoughts - We make choices…it’s what we choose…]
[ADDED 14/10/08: Ross Mayfield: “When we implement there is issues of control, we structure apps to automate business processes to drive down cost, in the end this is what everyone replicates, not a sustainable competitive advantage”]
[ADDED 16/10/08: Everything is fragmented—Managed serendipity]
[ADDED 16/10/08: In search of failure]
[ADDED 20/10/08: First, second and third generation innovation practice…]
[ADDED 15/03/09: Fostering Innovation: Lots of Little Fires or One Inferno?]
[ADDED 16/03/09: How Enterprise 2.0 Fosters Innovation: Stop Groupthink]
[ADDED 05/04/09: Do You Need a Failure Target?]