In our fast-changing world, much of our life is driven by the unexpected. Perhaps we ‘randomly’ met the hiring manager for a dream opportunity through a chance meeting in a coffee shop, or we ‘unexpectedly’ found our dream job by opening up LinkedIn at the moment it was posted, creating an opportunity to apply before the hiring manager was oversaturated with applications.
But in contrast to ‘blind luck’ that just happens to us (like being born into a loving family), it’s often up to us what we do with these unexpected moments; we have to turn them into ‘smart luck’ (serendipity). The ‘serendipity trigger’ is random, but our response is in our control.
Once we realize that serendipity is not just about a coincidence that just happens to us but is actually the process of spotting and connecting the dots, we can start cultivating it.
My decade-long research has shown that the world’s most inspiring leaders have, either consciously or subconsciously, built a ‘muscle for the unexpected’ that helps them cultivate serendipity.
How can we develop this muscle in the context of a hybrid professional environment?
1. Cultivate an openness to the unexpected
Alertness is crucial to notice unexpected events and turn them into positive outcomes. Some companies have integrated practices such as asking team members in the weekly meeting if they came across something surprising last week and, if so, did it change their assumptions? That’s when innovations such as the potato washing machine can emerge.
But if we want our employees to come up with new insights or ideas, we need to de-risk the process of voicing them.
We can learn from companies such as Pixar, where, in meetings, executives highlighted that most ideas are bad at the beginning. Then, ‘imperfect’ ideas, solutions or processes are used as ways of continuous learning.
2. Set serendipity hooks
Whenever you communicate with someone, cast a few hooks – concrete examples of your current interests and objectives.
This maximizes the chance that you and the other person (‘coincidentally’) latch onto common ground and shared passions – triggering serendipity.
3. Ask questions differently
Imagine meeting a new person at a (virtual) event. 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 do you find most interesting about the project you’re working on?’ or ‘What brings you here?’
Such questions open up conversations that might lead to intriguing – and often serendipitous – outcomes.
4. Create random collisions
If you are in charge of HR (or a team), you can use practices such as (virtual) ‘random coffee trials’, whereby you randomly match people across the organization for a ‘quick coffee’.
It can be facilitated with an inspiring prompt (e.g., ‘what challenge are you currently facing in the organization/how can I help?’), and usually not only leads to recreating virtual ‘watercooler moment’ serendipity, but also helps develop a deeper sense of belonging towards the company.
5. Accept imperfection and reframe the situation
Accepting imperfection as part of life allows us to more easily reframe situations so that where others might see a problem (say, unexpected budget constraints), you see an opportunity (making the best out of whatever resources are at hand), thus allowing more creative outcomes to emerge.
That’s also where rituals such as post-mortems or ‘project funerals’ come in, where people openly and frequently talk about ideas that did not work out. Importantly, this is not about celebrating failure–it’s about celebrating the learning that comes from unexpected places.
Often, serendipity happens when people realize that an idea that didn’t work in one context, might work in another.
In a time when uncertainty pushes many people to rely on dogma as an anchor, we have the alternative to develop a serendipity mindset that helps us to cope with whatever life throws at us.
And like a muscle, with appropriate training it will become stronger and part of our natural (and more resilient) way of life.
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