From muddy potatoes to smarter innovation

What is serendipity? Is it just a fancy word for luck? It turns out that it’s a special kind of luck, one that we can manufacture for ourselves. That’s according to Dr Christian Busch, lecturer, speaker, inspirer of young minds. He is author of a new book, initially published in hardback as The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck, and now published in paperback form as Connect the Dots.

Dr Busch is a lecturer and researcher on business model innovation, entrepreneurship, social impact, and social networks. He teaches several MSc and executive education courses at the London School of Economics. He has also taught at New York University. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a frequent speaker at conferences such as TEDx, and the Financial Times Sustainability Innovation Summit. Busch is co-founder of Sandbox Network, a community of young innovators across more than 20 countries.

In conversation with podcast host and writer Lionel Snell, on behalf of the Business Innovation Leaders Forum, Busch is asked to expand on what the word means to him.

“If we think about luck, we think about something that just happens to us,” he explains. “Being born into a good family, winning the Lottery, that sort of thing. But serendipity is more like smart luck that we create ourselves.”

Busch invites us to consider a serendipitous discovery – the potato washing machine: “A couple of years ago, a company I’ve been working with in China, one of the biggest appliance makers in the world, got a call from a farmer about one of their machines, designed for washing pickles. Why did the machine keep breaking down? We’re using it to wash potatoes, and it doesn’t seem to work properly. The normal response would be to say, it’s not made for potatoes, don’t wash them in there. But they did the opposite. They figured there’s probably a lot of farmers in China who might have a similar problem. So they thought why not build in a dirt filter and make it into a potato washer. And that’s how, serendipitously, the potato washing machine emerged.”

So it goes for life: we find love, or a new job, and think we got lucky, but maybe there’s more agency to it than we realise: “I see serendipity not as an event that just happens but as a process of spotting and connecting dots,” explains Busch. “This becomes actionable, allowing us to learn how to create more dots and connect them better.”

He cites other well documented examples from the world of business: “With COVID, there were breweries which traditionally had been selling to pubs and restaurants,” he says. “Those customers had been forced to suspend operations, and so the breweries realised maybe we can use our alcohol to produce hand sanitizer. And so unexpectedly they became hand sanitizer companies. Fashion companies realised they could produce cool masks and be part of the government’s Covid prevention efforts.”

The same basic principles can be applied by any of us to our everyday lives, he believes: “Imagine you’re in a coffee shop and you spill your drink over someone. You have two options. Option number one is you say, I’m so sorry, here’s a napkin, here’s the cost of your cleaning bill, and you move on. Option number two is you start a conversation. That person might become the love of your life, your new boss or your next client. The point is our reaction to the unexpected and how we make an accident meaningful. That’s what serendipity is about. It’s about making something out of accidents.”

Busch has taken some of these principles into his own working life, for example with the Sandbox Network that he set up 13 years ago: “It’s about connecting people from different fields who are pushing boundaries, and putting them together,” he explains. “It’s about creating a community around them to help make stuff happen. We found that serendipity popped up everywhere, and I got excited about that idea of helping to accelerate positive coincidences. How can we bring people together in ways that actually shape those positive coincidences for them, and for their organisations?”

Busch points to potential applications in the enterprise space: “You have thesis and then antithesis, and then the friction between the two,” he says. “That’s where innovation happens. I do a lot of work with senior executive teams. A typical CEO will want to portray the idea of having everything under control, of having a plan. But a healthy corporate culture allows for other ideas to emerge and to become part of the plan. It’s about not seeing the unexpected as a problem, as something that threatens authority, but as something that can become part of the way forward. I think that’s what purpose-driven leaders do extremely well.”

It’s not, he notes, about leaving everything to randomness, to anarchy and to chaos: “A leader must give people a sense of direction, but also embrace the reality that we cannot know everything in advance.”

In his book, Busch talks of ‘combinatorial chemistry’. It boils down, he says, to accelerating meaningful interactions in such a way as to bring a purposeful outcome, thus setting ourselves up for more serendipity.

Covid may have robbed us of a little of this chemistry. No longer could we run into someone at the office water cooler and hear by chance about a new job or a new opportunity. When everyone went to their home office, a little serendipity may have gone with them.

It’s time now to restore a bit of the magic. As part of that, Busch proposes the ‘random coffee trial’: “Everyone within an organisation gives up a couple of half hour slots a week,” he suggests. “Then you randomly match people across different hierarchy levels and across different departments. And they go for a quick coffee, and you give them an inspirational prompt.”

The perfect antidote, he says, to the kind of old school mindset that is all too common in large organisations, and also in governments: “Governments want to give people better food, better education, and so on, but you’re not really empowering people by doing this. You’re not really allowing them to create their own luck. You’re systemically keeping people down.”

He references some of the work he has been involved with in Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular in Cape Town with a body called Living Labs. “It’s an organisation that has a low-cost education methodology, like 10 steps to use social media to build your business,” he notes. “They take that methodology to other local communities that are similarly resource-constrained. Instead of asking, what do you need, they ask what is already here, and how can we make the best out of it. It’s about getting away from the mindset of seeing a victim that needs help. It’s about looking at capabilities and working together to do something. Serendipity is not about going in and thinking you have to change everything. Sometimes it’s about small behavioural changes.”

Busch sees a role for his ideas in the world technology: “I see it around artificial intelligence which is opening up so much potentiality for serendipity,” he says. “AI can help maximise positive encounters. It’s about the interaction between the human and the machine in ways that are kind of exciting. But really it’s about giving people the licence to talk about unexpected things, and think how they can really innovate.”

Listen to the full interview here on iTunes

Listen to the full interview here on Blubrry

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Book of the Month*

The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck

By Dr Christian Busch
Serendipity is an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. To other people it looks like “good luck”, but it is more the ability to recognise and seize an opportunity, rather than have good fortune thrust upon one. Finding a wallet stuffed with money on the conference room floor is good luck, whereas holding it up and asking if anyone has lost their wallet might be the beginning of a valuable friendship – that would be serendipity.

Chance encounters, or strokes of fortune, feature in countless stories of business success. This book looks beneath the surface, reveals and teaches the mindset that can transform pure chance into opportunity. The author is director of the Global Economy Program at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, and a lecturer at the London School of Economics.

Serendipity is an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. To other people it looks like “good luck”, but it is more the ability to recognise and seize an opportunity, rather than have good fortune thrust upon one. Finding a wallet stuffed with money on the conference room floor is good luck, whereas holding it up and asking if anyone has lost their wallet might be the beginning of a valuable friendship – that would be serendipity.

The author says “This is a book about the interactions of coincidence, human ambition and imagination”. In the above example: finding the wallet is the coincidence; ambition is the desire to make something of the discovery; add imagination and you open up a whole menu of possibilities: from spending spree to earning a reputation for honesty – or even making a wealthy friend.

Business is typically forged on human ambition and imagination, but early success often feeds an appetite for control – and “control freaks” can be blind to the opportunities thrown up by the unexpected. They only see chance events as distractions. If plans go awry, they may blame the failure on “bad luck” rather than admit their own inflexible attitude.

The author himself admits to being “a German who is used to planning” and prone to feel anxious when something unexpected happens. That makes him an ideal teacher, because he has worked hard to discover and analyse the mindset that enables one to “connect the dots” and cultivate serendipity. He presents a goldmine of examples from science, business and life where an apparent mishap or failure lead to a breakthrough.

Indeed, studies suggest that around 50% of major scientific breakthroughs emerge as the result of accidents or coincidences. A well-known example is Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, launching the whole field of antibiotics. Other examples include X-rays, nylon, microwave ovens, rubber, Velcro, Viagra and Post-it Notes – where would we be without these!

The book goes beyond the ability to recognise and respond to opportunities in chaos, but the subtitle – The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck – is actually a bit misleading. True, he does show ways to develop better fortune, but it would be better to call it “inviting” or “encouraging” good luck. For example, he suggests better ways to start a conversation with a stranger – ways that will make it more likely to lead to chance connections or shared interests.

The publishers may have chosen the word “creating” to make the book appeal to the human desire to control – for control freaks are exactly the readership that would benefit the most from this book’s wisdom and practical advice.

For the rest of us, it offers a great way to rediscover the sense of play that is so important in life – and too often lost in business.


“Following the success of The Serendipity Mindset hardback, a paperback edition has also now been launched under the title “Connect the Dots”.

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