Thoughts on serendipity and managed processes

Question: Should we rely on serendipity or a managed process for incremental innovation?

I’ve been asked to answer this question as part of an assignment.  I thought it would be good to record the answer here. It’s not because I think my answer is anything great or has uncovered some train of thought that no one else has wrestled to understand.  In fact, I see blogs, podcasts, and the like on creative thought versus process all the time.  But this is my sounding board and place for me to record thoughts.  I’d welcome yours.


Man, by nature, wants life to be very rhythmic and loves to have patterns of repeatability. This is a core essence of education and learning in society. You learn a principal that should be repeatable and hold true for completing tasks. The scientific method? Mathematical formulas? Yet, despite his best efforts, there are well documented occurrences of meaningful inventions and ideas that were discovered by accidental events. Serendipity is by definition, the act of finding one thing while looking for something completely different. Both serendipity and managed processes have their place in life. One planned, the other not.

Managed process for incremental innovations brings structure and efficiency to our actions. Done correctly, a process that guides our actions helps to turn thoughts and ideas into meaningful product. Take a simple Product Development Process as an example:

Ideation –> Concept Evaluation –> Development –> Product Launch

For a practitioner, this work flow serves almost as a checklist to guide decisions that ultimately reach an end. In the case of product/service innovation that could be termination of an idea during evaluation or it could to lead to the launch of a new product. Each process step is created and put into place as the result of a learning experienced during a previous run through of the work flow. As the process matures, with additional iterations, it should become more refined and suited for producing predictable output. This works well for big business where management and shareholders do not like surprises. In that environment, management supports and develops processes to control predictability and minimize risk and surprises.

Unfortunately, while the intention of refining processes based on past learnings is intended to make the process better and more efficient, it can often have the opposite effect. As steps are added into a process it becomes bulkier with more checkpoints. Bureaucracy sets in, and soon the practitioners of the process lose site of the ultimate creative goal because they are consumed with following the steps of the work flow. Consider this example with added steps from our initial flow:

Ideation –> Fill out form, get management approval –> Concept evaluation –> Screen Product, Financial analysis, Executive approval –> Development –> Fill out forms for resources, Gain approval for specification –> Product Launch

In this example, it would be easy for practitioners to spend a large portion of their time filling out paper work and trying to attain approvals. They can lose site of the ultimate goal for the sake of a checklist. It’s not long before innovation and creative thought starts to get lost .

Serendipity by nature can’t be relied on to produce innovation because you never know when it will happen! But you can be assured it will happen from time-to-time and as fortune would have it, may lead to a radical innovation. Consider these great examples:

  • Charles Goodyear discovers rubber when he accidentally leaves a piece of rubber mixture with sulfur on a hot plate.
  • Aspartame, or Nutrasweet, was accidentally ingested by James Sch latter while trying to develop a test for an anti-ulcer drug.
  • Corn Flakes was invented by the Kellogg brothers in 1898 after they left cooked wheat unattended for a day. They later tried to roll it but became flaky instead of rolling into a mass.

What’s the real answer here? I see two general concepts that are worthy of discussion and follow-up:

1. For organizations: Create a culture of innovation by encouraging new ideas, not punishing failures, reducing bureaucracy, and educating employees. Process is good to provide a framework for innovation, but don’t let the process choke the creative nature of your people.
2. For individuals: Develop routines and rhythms that encourage creative thought. Make sure you set aside time to think, research, explore, and educate yourself.

Doing these two things leverages the advantages of a ‘managed process’ while at the same time encouraging creativity. Serendipity? Well, would you rather be good or lucky?