Luck Or Serendipity – What Is The Difference?

luck or serendipityIn a nutshell, serendipity is Luck Plus. Some people say that you can make your own luck, you can’t. What you can do is increase the potential of Serendipity. Here is a good example which I frequently use.

A simple but powerful example of the power of the serendipity comes from Japan Railways. During the construction of a tunnel through Mt. Tanigawa, engineers encountered many problems with water.

Just as they began to design a traditional draining solution enter an enterprising railway worker. He thought that the water tasted so good it ought to be bottled and sold as a premium brand mineral water rather than simply pumping it away.

And so “Oshimizu” was born. It became so popular that Japan Railways installed Oshimizu vending machines on every one of its platforms. Marketing material emphasises the purity of Mt. Tanigawa’s snow which is the source of the water and also the slow percolation through the rock which adds minerals. The product grew to include juices as well as iced and hot teas and coffees. By 1994, sales of Oshimizu branded drinks had risen to $47 million.

So Luck or Skill? Well as we can see from the Japan Railways example an unexpected event is nothing on its own. We need luck and an ability to react appropriately in a corporate environment.

So what does serendipity add? ‘Luck’ was having unwanted water in the railway tunnel and a railway worker who thought he would sample it. The ‘Plus’ is having a company culture that allowed the railway worker to put forward his idea and for Japan Railways to examine the possibilities and act accordingly. Japan Railways did not manufacture luck but were able to profit from unexpected situations due to being prepared.

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Six Steps To Turn Luck Into Profit

This article carries on from a previous post on Serendipity. Here I give you six steps to turn luck into profit. If you missed the post read it here.

Ensure that the goals of your business are aligned with the values, interests and actions of your employees. The Japan Railways worker was all for removing water, he just had a different solution for doing it and he knew that his idea would be taken seriously.

Encourage initiative. Allow employees to pick problems that they are interested in, which in turn increases intrinsic motivation. Employees will put in extra effort or time if they feel it is worth it.

Unofficial activity (or skunk works) occurs in the absence of direct official support. When an idea is new to a company there is often resistance. Unofficial activity gives ideas a safe breeding ground where they have the chance to develop. Official recognition can raise all kinds of barriers to creativity when managers plan and scrutinise every step. When employees are free to experiment beyond the boundaries of their job descriptions, this is often the time for unexpected connections.

A serendipitous discovery is one made by accident in the presence of insight. Creativity often involves making connections between things that may seem unconnected. The more obscure the connection, the greater the role for the unexpected. With insight we help bridge the gap, we do not need to leap quite so far. An excellent example of this was the discovery of penicillin.

Use diverse stimuli. A stimulus either provides fresh insight into something a person has already set out to do, or it provokes an entirely new course of action. We must remember that it is hard (even impossible) to predict how individuals react to new stimuli. So once again we must expect the unexpected but a word of caution, mass applications of stimuli have a limited effect. Bringing people together to share experiences of such stimuli is much more beneficial.

Develop a soft infrastructure. For corporate creativity official channels of communication are of limited use. We need networks where knowledge and intuition can slosh about, crossing departmental and functional boundaries. Good examples are those coffee machine or water cooler moments. Smaller companies seem to be able to create or foster such networks but larger companies have difficulty. The larger the company, the more likely that the components of creativity are present somewhere in it, but the less likely they will be brought together without some help.

Following these steps will help in your quest to turn luck into profit.

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Serendipity – luck or skill?

Serendipity was not a word that was in my vocabulary for a long time. I first encountered it whilst studying for my MBA and initially I took it to mean ‘good fortune’. To many this definition suffices but as far as exploiting serendipity in a corporate context is concerned there is much more to it.

Managers in most companies are aware that as far as creativity is concerned, potential (often greatly) exceeds performance. They are aware of the problem but are not sure exactly what they should do about it. Many creative initiatives are planned (are these truly creative?) and a large number are spontaneous. They often hit us when we least expect it and we are unaware of what form these events will be, where they will come from and who might get tangled up in them.

If the truly great potential is in the unexpected then what can be done to harness or capture the power of the unexpected?

A simple but powerful example of the power of the unexpected comes from Japan Railways. During the construction of a tunnel through Mt. Tanigawa engineers encountered many problems with water. Just as they began to provide a traditional draining solution enter an enterprising railway worker. He thought that the water tasted so good it ought to be bottled and sold as a premium brand mineral water rather than simply pumping it away. And so “Oshimizu” was born. It became so popular that Japan Railways installed Oshimizu vending machines on every one of its nearly platforms. Marketing material emphasises the purity of Mt. Tanigawa’s snow which is the source of the water and also the slow percolation through the rock which adds minerals. The product grew to include juices as well as iced and hot teas and coffees. By 1994, sales of Oshimizu branded drinks had risen to $47 million.

A natural tendency of management is to believe it’s more in control of events than it really is, or that it really needs to be in control of everything. Hence the proliferation of myths that hide the true source of creativity and the manuals and systems that allow management to successfully manage creativity.

We are all told that to be creative we must suspend our critical thinking. So if we all rearrange our office furniture or let our emails pile up for a day our companies will be brimming with creativity?

So Luck or Skill? Well as we can see from the Japan Railways example an unexpected event is nothing on its own. We need luck and an ability to react appropriately in a corporate environment.

Coming soon … Six Steps to Turn Luck Into Profit.

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