Planning for serendipity

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Planning for serendipity

The 18th-century writer Horace Walpole supposedly introduced the word serendipity, or “happy accidents.” Since then, serendipity has become associated with a host of inventions and discoveries, including penicillin, dynamite and the law of gravity. More recently, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerburg described his company as the embodiment of serendipity, with people having random encounters and making surprising discoveries.

Today’s fast-changing business environment has spawned unexpected, successful ideas at a rising number of companies. There is, of course, a strong element of chance behind many worthy ideas, but what makes one a serendipitous, transformational moment is largely the province of companies that have fostered a corporate culture for them.

Three conditions are needed to allow “Ah-ha!” flashes of discovery. First, employees need to be given time to break away from the everyday humdrum to gather their thoughts. Companies have to stop treating creativity and new ideas like a light switch that employees can turn on and off while they complete daily tasks. They should provide their employees with the freedom and autonomy to find and enjoy other activities.

For example, at W.L. Gore & Associates, the maker of Gore-Tex fabric, employees are allowed “dabble time” - they do what they please for 10 percent of their time at work. The company knows full well what serendipity can bring. In 1969, Robert W. Gore, son of founder Wilbert Lee Gore, yanked a heated strip of polytetrafluoroethylene tape out of frustration and discovered it formed a micro-porous structure that became the basis of the company’s eponymous material used in clothing worldwide.

This unstructured time also has led to discoveries outside the company’s specialties, such as when a medical service researcher and his guitar-loving cohort accidentally discovering a guitar string that lasts three times longer. Gore, which does not have a conventional hierarchy, has more than 2,000 patents worldwide and has a regular spot on Fortune magazine’s annual list of best companies to work for.

Such brief interludes from daily tasks are regularly cited by accomplished people in all fields. For example, faced with a particularly difficult mathematical question, French mathematician and theoretical physicist Jules Henri Poincare would take frequent walks, saying that it was the best tool for creative ideas.

Second, chance communications between employees must be increased. Communication and cooperation between organization members are closely connected to distance and space. Companies need to provide open areas where employees can gather, interact and recharge spontaneously, as well as various attractions to pull them together.

Google believes that innovations are borne from employees’ everyday conversations and has designed its office space so that an employee can encounter a colleague within a few minutes. Specifically, data, including walking speed and the layout of interior spaces, were analyzed and reflected in the office design.

Another example includes the animation company Pixar, which has located all its convenience facilities, such as the cafeteria, cafe and meeting rooms, in a central hall to encourage more chance communication between employees.

Last, it is important to connect discovery with action. Companies must realize discoveries can come from any employee, regardless of job title, and allow ample room for follow-up action. In short, they must create a culture that allows for trial and error and accepts it as a step to capturing decisive opportunities from random occurrences.

It can be said that fortune that comes from countless attempts and action is an inevitability rather than chance. The artist Pablo Picasso created more than 10,000 pieces of art in oil paintings, engravings and illustrations, and the world-famous Angry Birds game, which has been downloaded a staggering 700 million times, was the result of 52 trials over an eight-year development stage. Now it has gone beyond the realm of the gaming world, inspiring the sale of 2 million T-shirts, backpacks and stuffed toys a month.

When asked how Google became such a success, co-founder Sergey Brin answered that the first factor was luck. With the business environment rapidly changing, companies are increasing their efforts to link chance with success.

Those that think serendipity will help realize their ambitions not only are providing free time to employees, they are encouraging them to attend events and gatherings on topics they previously had little interest in to widen their perspectives.

The elements for fostering serendipity, of course, may seem alien to some Korean companies that adhere to a more traditional top-down management and a work-oriented atmosphere.

But they also realize that they are in a business environment that increasingly puts a premium on innovation, as echoed by the government’s push for a “creative economy.” Creating the proper internal environment can lead to serendipitous moments that can transform a company’s fate and lead to new products and services that can better diversify Korea’s economy.

*The author is a research fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute.

by Kim Dong-Chul
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