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.

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