Business Serendipity

Innovation is the current silver bullet to fix flagging businesses and help grow new ones – it’s leading to a lot of interest in ideas like Design Thinking.

Design Thinking starts with observing Customers and identifying their needs – rather than asking Customers what they want (or how they respond to key marketing phrases). Doing this well involves lots of research, taking copious notes and then combining these notes in many different ways to gain insights. It is from these insights that ideas such as the pedestals for front-load washing machines came about at Whirlpool – the video is a great one to watch to see Design Thinking principles in action.

Done well, the research generates hundreds or thousands of notes – these might be stuck on a long wall and grouped together. It is key that different people do the groupings and that individuals walk away from the material for a while and then come back to it later. By doing this, the material is viewed in many different ways and the chances of finding novel ideas are increased.

How does this relate to serendipity in the workplace?

How many of us come into work at the same time each day, visit the same coffee place during our break and speak to the same people over lunch? With such regular habits, the chances of new ideas emerging are greatly reduced. It would be like one person taking all the observations from Customer research, classifying them and leaving it at that. The great ideas come from stepping away and then looking again with fresh eyes. Some of my favourite moments at work have occurred seemingly by chance – resulting in time saved for a project or a better way to design a solution.

The entire premise of serendipity is that it is unlooked for good fortune – so we really shouldn’t try and force it to happen. We can enable it to happen more often by changing our routine, mixing with different people and speaking about different topics with the people we normally work with.

Try something different today…it might lead to a new idea.

More Than Two Options

Innovation – the catch-cry of our current times. To create new things, we obviously need to have ideas and the more ideas we have, the more likely we will find great ones.

One of the things stopping us from having more ideas could be the morphology of our human bodies.

If we look at how our bodies are set out, we have two sides, two hands, eyes etc. – perhaps this is constraining us and making it more difficult to imagine many more ideas.

As a thought experiment – what if our bodies were shaped like an octopus – with eight tentacles instead of two hands? I wonder if our natural constraint would then become eight. We could call this way of thinking ‘octopus mode’ so that we are making a deliberate effort to generate many ideas.

Octopus and humanImagine the way our conversations might change

From….. ‘I think we should do X, but on the other hand, we could do Y’

To….. ‘We could do A, or on tentacle 2 we could try B, or on tentacle 3 we could explore C, and then on tentacle 4 we should really do D’……and so on

Taking the thought experiment a bit further, in octopus mode, I might be writing this post and wondering about our constraint of eight, imagining what it would be like to be a centipede.

OK – it’s getting a bit silly now. The main point of this post was to highlight awareness of a physical constraint that we deal with every day and might be influencing our ability to think of many more ideas.

In summary

  1. Next time you are thinking about options or generating ideas, try octopus mode and come up with at least eight
  2. It does not matter if some of the ideas are a bit odd, these ones could lead to the innovation we want to find
  3. Now that I’ve done two points, of course I am going to write eight, just to see what happens
  4. One way might be to draw up eight boxes on a sheet of paper and keep generating ideas until all the boxes are completed
  5. It could be considered a waste of time if the ideas or options that we are looking at are obvious and limited by other constraints (for example, choosing a product to buy when there are only three types available), so suggest not using octopus mode for these ones
  6. Problem-solving is a great place to use this mode – we often want to jump straight to solution. Looking at the problem in eight different ways will open up new options
  7. It’s really very difficult to think of eight things – but at least this point creates number seven in the list and I only need one more
  8. Once eight gets easy, perhaps try for centipede mode – one hundred ideas or ways of looking at a situation/problem

Thanks again to Tobbe Gyllebring and Steve for the conversations that have inspired this post – of course, any inaccuracies are all mine.


There are companion posts from Marc Burgauer and Trent Hone about this topic – these 3 posts are our initial thoughts based on some Twitter interactions.

For the purpose of this post, the term ‘automation’ should be considered in the broadest possible sense.

If we think about software supporting and automating tasks such as ordering products and producing bills, then continuous delivery is like automating parts of the software delivery process. I thought that it might be a useful thought-activity to consider other forms of automation and see if that generates any insights – especially around how we decide what things are safe to automate and what things need to have human judgement applied.

Manual Refrigeration

One form of automation is refrigeration – imagine if it was manual. We would need to keep an eye on the temperature and add ice whenever it went over a certain amount.

Well worn path

In a broader sense, even pathways might be considered an automatic guide for where to step next and a convenient way to find places.

In the above two examples, we might make the decision about where to build a path once we see a worn track where many people have walked. We might decide to automate refrigeration because transporting and adding ice manually is very labour intensive.

On the safety side – a worn dirt track is not as safe as a textured concrete path because in the wet, it might be slippery. Also, hauling ice through the house risks injury and if we forget to add ice at the right time, our food will become contaminated and make us sick.

If we abstract these concepts, here are some good reasons to automate something

  • We have already done it many times and will continue to do it the same way
  • We know exactly what we need to do and it is hard to do it manually
  •  Problems are happening due to lack of care

There is still a bit more pondering to do with these thoughts and I am looking forward to further inputs and insights from Marc Burgauer and Trent Hone  – thank you to both.



Types of Work

Following on from the earlier post about decisions, what would we do differently if we realised that we have been mixing together the concepts of creation work and information flow work?

Doing WorkCreation Work

This is the way we usually think about work – doing things, fixing things, reporting completion rates and then measuring the amount of value delivered. As we perform this work, reports get generated, decisions get made and dependencies managed.

Info Flow WorkInformation Flow Work

Information is required to support decision making and also for the purposes of monitoring. We tend not to focus on this type of work. There may be an advantage to specifically calling it out.

  • Groups that gather data to flow up to decision-makers – if there is clarity about what decisions are being made and what information is required in order to make them, then these groups could be more effective
  • Groups that help disparate teams to work together – what decisions do the teams need to make or what types of data do the teams need to monitor for dependency, risk and issue management?

Perhaps our work structures would look more like the picture below.

Two Systems of WorkCreation and Information Flow Work Intertwined

Roles and teams specifically created as either primarily creation work or information flow work and then structured so that they intertwine. This could free up capacity in the creation work roles as they would not need to do so much reporting. It could also allow the information flow roles to better describe the value that they provide to the organisation in the support of decision-making, communications and monitoring.


Causal Chains

The method for Multi-Hypothesis research that Jabe Bloom describes in his Failing Well session is very useful for exploring ideas and gaining new insights to problems.

The main idea is to use ambiguity by presenting factual statements to a group and allowing each person to form their own opinions and conclusions about those facts.

Causal Chains

We ‘unpack’ what thoughts may have led to the original opinions and conclusions, some thoughts will be certainties that the facts are right or wrong and others will be guesses and doubts.

  • Guesses and doubts are then explored to find ways that we can conduct tests or experiments in order to learn – the focus being on the smallest effort we can invest in order to learn something useful, regardless of the test failing or succeeding.
  • Certainties are sometimes worth testing as well – in the picture above, we try to invalidate gravity by throwing a ball – if it did not fall, we would be surprised and have a great opportunity for learning.

This workshop method can be completed in as little as 60 minutes with a small group, 90 minutes is comfortable for a group of about 10 people. It is a great way to get a lot of ideas in a short time and to shed some biases in our thinking by allowing many different points of view.


There are many ways to improve the way we work.


Agile, Lean, Cynefin, Lean Startup, Kanban, XP, TDD, BDD, Srcum – these are just a few.

There are also many ways to apply these approaches to the way we work.

Ways to Approach

As a ‘pure’ method, a set of principles, a staring point, assembling a mixture of approaches appropriate to the problem we are trying to solve.

The great thing is that it gives us many combinations to try so that we can find solutions that suit the outcomes we are aiming for.

The down side is that it can be very hard to choose an approach – what has worked for one place, can be difficult to apply to another and get the same outcomes.