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Chance, Serendipity, and Discovery Published: Sunday, October 16, 2011 8:00 am By: Ulises Pabón, Chief Operations Officer

Ancestry.com, the web-site that helps people search their genealogy and build their family tree has a curious tag-line on its TV commercials.  After sharing an example of an extraordinary lineage discovery made through the site, the announcer faces the camera and says “You don’t have to know what you’re looking for.  You just have to start looking.”

The line is an excellent teaser for their web-site; and may well be a perfect policy in certain contexts.  However, when it comes to chance, serendipity, and discovery, it’s a little more complicated.

Chance, serendipity, and discovery play an important role in research and development, in problem solving, in continuous improvement, and in innovation.  History is filled with examples, from simple quandaries to complex challenges, which were solved through serendipity.  For sure, you have your own share of experiences where a chance encounter or an accidental discovery made an important difference, perhaps even changed your life.

For years, 3M was the “poster-child” for serendipitous product discoveries.  Many of 3M’s products, such as Scotchguard™, were discovered as a result of an accident.  Yet, 3M’s stellar performance in new product development was no accident.  It was the result of three intertwined factors: a clear intent, extraordinary passion, and a robust innovation process.  Scientists at 3M developed an obsession for “stickiness” and this obsession allowed them to see opportunities that under other circumstances would have passed unnoticed. 

The misleading advice on www.ancestry.com’s tagline resides in the initial statement: You don’t have to know what you’re looking for.  A review of history’s most prolific and successful inventors suggests the opposite.  It turns out that if you want to court serendipity and invite discovery, you do need to know what you’re looking for.  You may not need to know it “to the letter”, but as Louis Pasteur would put it, chance does favor the prepared mind.

Having “something in your mind” is the best antidote to boredom, apathy and indifference.  Curiosity might have killed the cat but it surely gave life to inventiveness.  If you want to steer chance, serendipity, and discovery in your favor, having an interest, a passion, even a curiosity for something is instrumental.

Friedrich Hayek, the founder of the Austrian School of Economics and author of the seminal article The Use of Knowledge in Society, provides a framework that may be useful in selecting a focal point for insight.  Hayek divides knowledge into two categories: aggregate knowledge and knowledge of a particular instance of reality.  Both perspectives provide a door through which we can invite-in chance, serendipity, and discovery.

Focusing on aggregate knowledge – the kind of knowledge acquired through the integration of data and information and through the observation and study of patterns and trends – can activate “receptor sites” in our brain that will allow us to “see” emerging needs, future trends, and unfolding scenarios.

On the other hand, focusing on specific instances of reality can bring to the surface details that are lost in aggregate knowledge.  Many instances of chance and serendipity are cued from knowledge of point occurrences.  These point occurrences serve as a trigger to unite previously unrelated concepts or ideas.

Aggregate knowledge and specific knowledge are complementary and synergistic.  A “prepared mind” learns how to jog between both perspectives to maximize discovery.  Regardless of where your interest and circle of influence reside – society, organization, team, family, or individual – the challenges you face are becoming more complex and sophisticated.  As you search for solutions, if you want to tip the odds for chance, serendipity, and discovery in your favor, follow Pasteur’s lead: find out first what you’re looking for, and then start looking!

Copyright 2011 QBS, Inc.
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