Developing muscle for the unexpected
If you master one skill in 2022 says Christian Busch make it cultivating serendipity
COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that throughout history, progress has depended on humans’ ability to make the best out of the unknown. In times of crisis, these kinds of efforts tend to be driven by necessity. But research across the social and natural sciences shows that the greatest improvements and opportunities, both in the good and the bad, are often a matter of serendipity – the unexpected good luck resulting from unplanned moments, in which proactive decisions lead to positive outcomes. This ‘smart luck’ is different from the ‘blind’ luck that just happens to us (like being born into a loving family). It is a hidden force all around us, from the smallest day-to-day events to life-changing, and sometimes world-changing, breakthroughs.
Many of the world’s most inspiring individuals have developed – often subconsciously – a muscle for the unexpected that helps them to unleash creativity and resourcefulness and drive success and impact in a fast-changing world. For Tom Linebarger, CEO of Fortune 500 company Cummins, “cultivating serendipity” is at the core of what he does: He considers it “an active rather than passive approach to leading during uncertainty”. It is a life-skill that is at the key of navigating a fast-changing world, and more than ever necessary in an unpredictable 2022.
How can we start developing this life-skill – and strengthen our 'muscle for the unexpected'?
Individuals often feel the pressure to convey that “one has it all under control”. Achieving success often is not about controlling the exact outcome. Instead, it is about balancing a sense of direction with an appreciation of the unknown. This sense of direction – a broader ambition, curiosity, or interest that consciously or subconsciously guides us – helps move us to spot and connect the dots between unexpected moments and what is (or could be) important to us. This might mean to let go of a specific career path and instead use unexpected situations as opportunities for exploring new directions. Former Unilever CEO Paul Polman, for example, takes on a large number of projects that have come to him unexpectedly, but he is intentional about how they fit his purpose to help people who can’t help themselves. Other people work a couple of hours per week for someone they admire or for a cause they are passionate about – often that is where they find unexpected opportunities. We start placing our own bets.
What’s important is that we don’t over-define a problem, plan, or outcome. Fascinating research by innovation experts Eric von Hippel and Georg von Krogh suggests that people can look at two landscapes: one with all the possible problems that we need to solve, one with the possible solutions. When we put the two on top of each other, we can see that many potential dots that could be connected. If you only ask people to “reduce costs,” you restrict their field of possible solutions. If you ask them “to make the company survive,” they will focus on a broader search into fields where innovative solutions can emerge.
In our fast-changing world, many of the emerging problems are so complex that much of our future will be driven by the unexpected
This is also why serendipity is often cultivated by asking good questions, and being open to unexpected answers. Imagine being at a (virtual) conference, and meeting a new person. Many of us might go on autopilot and ask the dreaded “So what do you do?” This tends to put the other person into a box that is hard to get out of. Positioning ourselves for smart luck means asking more open-ended questions like “What did you find most interesting about…?” or “What do you enjoy doing?” Such questions open up conversations that might lead to intriguing – and often serendipitous – outcomes.
But what happens if we get the dreaded question ourselves?
There are ways we can set serendipity hooks – using memorable or engaging talking points – to open ourselves to serendipity. Take Oli Barret, founder of multiple businesses in London. When Oli meets new people, he casts several hooks that enable potential overlaps. If he gets asked, “What do you do?” he will answer something along the lines of, “I love connecting people, set up a company in the education sector, recently started thinking about philosophy, but what I really enjoy is playing the piano.” This reply includes at least four potential serendipity triggers: a passion (connecting people), a job description (running an education company), an interest (philosophy), and a hobby (playing the piano). If he just responded, “I am in education,” the opportunity for others to connect the dots would be small. This way, he makes it more likely that someone might respond with something like, “That’s a coincidence! I just started playing piano, Let’s see a concert sometime!” It allows others to pick and choose the hook that relates to their life and makes it more likely that serendipity will happen.
In our fast-changing world, many of the emerging problems are so complex that much of our future will be driven by the unexpected. Like a muscle, with appropriate training our ability to cultivate serendipity will become stronger and part of our natural (and more resilient) way of life. Then, 2022 will become your year.
Dr. Christian Busch directs the CGA Global Economy Program at New York University and teaches on purpose-driven leadership, entrepreneurship, emerging markets, and (social) innovation at NYU and at the London School of Economics. He is also author of Connect the Dots: The Art & Science of Creating Good Luck
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