The Voice of Serendipity

by Drew Boyd

The Voice of SerendipityMany products are invented accidentally. Serendipity led to the microwave oven, corn flakes, Teflon®, penicillin, fireworks, Viagra®, chocolate chip cookies, and the most famous of all accidents…the Post-it® note. The problem with serendipity is it’s not predictable. It is not an innovation method one would count on for corporate growth. But there is value in serendipity if you can unlock its hidden secrets. How?

In 1891, a physical education teacher named James Naismith invented the game of basketball by nailing two peach baskets to the gymnasium walls. After the ball was thrown into a basket, someone climbed a ladder to get it out. This was annoying, so the bottom of the basket was altered to allow a stick to poke through and knock the ball out. After many games and many successful shots, the bottom fell out…literally. The peach basket bottom weakened and broke loose allowing a ball to fall completely through after a shot. The result? This simple, serendipitous invention allowed the game to be played continuously without the interruption of retrieving the ball. Basketball advanced to the worldwide game that it is today.

It seems obvious now, so why was it hard to see that cutting the bottom of the peach basket would yield such an important feature? The answer lies in a condition called Structural Fixedness – the tendency of people to see things as a whole, a gestalt, not as a collection of individual components. Fixedness blocks us from seeing non-obvious innovations in virtually any product or service. Traditional “Voice of the Customer” market research methods attempt to discover these opportunities but fail due to fixedness.

What if we could tap into the “Voice of Serendipity” instead? What would it tell us? Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, describes the process of design thinking in three steps he calls the knowledge funnel:

  1. Mystery – At the top of the funnel, humans stare into a mystery – which contains the random and chaotic ‘situation’ in which we find ourselves much of the time – and is of course where opportunity lies.
  2. Heuristic – In the middle of the narrowing funnel, humans come up with a heuristic, or rule of thumb, that allows us to address the mystery and manage it in some way
  3. Algorithm – And at the thinnest point of the funnel – the most codified part of the continuum – systematizing and automating the solution – The Algorithm.

Peach basket Let’s apply this to the peach basket. We observe the mystery of how a “broken” peach basket suddenly yields a tremendous improvement. We form a heuristic that this phenomena can be repeated if we can “break” other products or services the same way. We create an algorithm that says: identify an essential component of a product or service, then remove it from the whole and see what benefit the remaining entity brings. Let’s try it on Teflon®. This product derived serendipitously when a chemist attempted to make a new refrigerant. A batch accidentally hardened when iron inside the container contaminated it. Our heuristic is: adding foreign or unwanted contaminants will create a benefit. Our algorithm is: add non-intuitive aspects to a product or service and see what benefit the new entity brings.

Here is the key message: Every serendipitous invention can be reduced to a heuristic and ultimately to an algorithm or pattern. If we listen to the Voice of Serendipity over and over, we will hear certain patterns repeat themselves. If we capture these patterns and codify them into a set of templates, we have an effective way to innovate to achieve growth, on demand.

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Drew BoydDrew Boyd is Visiting Assistant Professor of Marketing and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati and Executive Director of the MS-Marketing program. Follow him at www.innovationinpractice.com and at http://twitter.com/drewboyd