The Role of Serendipity in Innovation – why we still need those face to face moments

The technology that sits behind the vaccines that we hope will release the world from lock-down, nearly did not see the light of day. Katalin Kariko, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, spent 15 years investigating messenger RNA, the genetic material that acts as a kind of courier in the body, transporting recipes from our DNA to the cells to produce proteins. No one was interested.

It was in one of her attempts to get the university patents officer to listen, that she noticed he was going bald. As she prepared to hear yet another rejection, she mentioned in passing that one of the potential applications for the technology was that it could be good for growing hair. By the end of the meeting the patent had been filed and the rest as they say, is history, (in the making).

The world of successful innovation is full of similar stories, the chance meeting; the misunderstood data in a presentation; the email that got misfiled in the junk folder and emerged at a later more opportune date; etc. What I strongly suspect is that without some face-to-face, unscripted human interaction then the innovation pipelines of the world will undoubtedly be poorer as a consequence

Serendipity is the accidental finding of something good and, by definition, happens by pure chance. It therefore appears to be outside of our zone of influence. The probability of it happening however can be increased and it is these areas where anyone interested in breakthrough innovation should focus their attention.

Chance Encounters

The greeting, ”What do you know?”  Is an interesting affectation that one of my colleagues uses that mildly irritated me. Until, that is, I observed that she also had great listening skills and was superb at getting people to share what they were up to with her. It was certainly more effective than the usual, “how are you?” that of course elicits the ubiquitous “I’m fine”; a response usually takes any subsequent conversation nowhere fast.

Chance encounters need a catalyst if they are to yield insights of value. Having a few interesting opening remarks can enhance the chances that something interesting is said, so give your opening question some thought.

Rush to Action Slowly and Stay Curious Longer

Being comfortable with gentle challenges and having a selection of questions designed to seek clarification are all part of the armoury of the genuine innovator. The underlying attribute is of course curiosity, that elusive trait not often on display by managers and poor leaders too keen to impress on the world what they believe they know.

Group Collaboration needs Facilitation

Meetings set up to share ideas and explore new thinking can quickly descend into long monologues, as ‘experts’ take to the airways and share their insights and perspectives in the usually mistaken belief that others are interested. A trained facilitator, armed with some easy to deploy collaboration tools and a suitable micro-process, can minimise this danger.

Great facilitators know how to control of the ‘air-time’ and have a set of well framed questions can help people engage with the collaboration challenge. Absent this, most collaboration meetings often turn into games of verbal ping-pong.

On-Line Collaboration Tools

The global pandemic has led to an explosion of the use of on-line collaboration tools. Organisations have embraced virtual working with a gusto never seen in the pre-pandemic era. Whilst the on-line tools are indeed useful, and can enable 24 / 7 global collaboration to become an everyday reality, they are poor substitutes for 3D face-to-face contact. The overly formal, often written or verbal only formats, struggle to transfer the energy and enthusiasm needed for innovative ideas to flourish and grow.

We never really appreciated how much we transmit and absorb via subtle body language and tonality signals, until they are taken away from us. The 2D Microsoft Teams / Zoom world we have all become familiar with recently do have their place for sure, but they fall short of what can be achieved when people come together face-to-face in a suitably facilitated creative environment.

So, if innovation is part of your working life, and let’s face it if it isn’t given the pace of change, then you are in real danger of being left behind, then I ask you; ‘what do you know?’

To start a conversation on this topic please contact me and we can discuss the art of the possible for you and your organisation.   

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