Rediscovery Reiterations and Frequency

How often do we revisit ideas and decisions? It is a strange fact that once we decide on a course of action or a solution we seem to think that there is nothing left to do but implement that which we have decided. The very act of deciding some how defies the law of space and time, a temporal bubble is formed around that very point in time and nothing will ever change. Ludicrous but this is how we behave, we rarely if ever, revisit the decision making process and if we do it is often a revalidation process rather than an actual open and frank analysis. We are now heavily invested in our previous decision and heavily biased by it. A dangerous starting point for any discovery.

This ludicrous temporal bubble which we create around our decisions highlights the linear causality we use as our default mental model.

So how often should we revisit a previously decided process or decision ? Well that’s the golden question. I can only offer a philosophical view and that is the process or decision should be revisited depending upon its complexity, its interdependence upon other projects and the number of people involved in its implementation. Basically complexity requires vigilance, the more intricate and interconnected a project is the more often we should take a step back and revise our situation and the decision making process and decisions based upon the previous state of knowledge.

As Tobbe said :

“What’s required to deal with complexity might not be vigilance but explicit anticipation and rough boundaries validity.

While mining complexity we should always bring our canary with us down into the mine.”

Discovery and Re-discovery

We’ve been discussing the concepts of ideation and the workshop activities that we do to generate ideas. These activities use the intent behind ‘brainstorming’ – not that I am recommending the common form, let me explain why.

The method that springs to mind when we mention ‘brainstorming’ is for a facilitator to capture ideas onto a whiteboard while people call them out. There are many issues with using the method in this way related to good old human nature such as our tendencies to focus on the first theme mentioned or our tendency to defer to people in positions of perceived higher status.

No BrainstormingThere are many better ways to generate ideas from design thinking and other facilitation approaches such as

  • Silent brainstorming
  • Rapid sketching
  • Surfacing assumptions and generating hypotheses

What if we are working on a big, important goal? There are many questions that we overlook because it’s easy to make the assumption that once was enough and doing a process of discovery again might generate more work than we desire.

  • Should we facilitate only one of these idea-generation sessions with one group of people?
  • How can we know if we have looked at the goal from enough angles?
  • If we should do it more than once, then how many times and how much time between the sessions?

Perhaps this is the original intent behind governance processes. We know that humans are very creative and are likely to learn much at the beginning of a piece of work that leads to more interesting ideas as we proceed. In an idealistic world, the process of governance is a way of checking in with a bunch of smart people to help us identify key decisions and make those decisions in a timely manner.

Those same smart people can also assist with identification of the needs to re-discover – perhaps they have learned something useful from elsewhere that could help us to reach our goal sooner or obtain better outcomes. This new information might be a reason to facilitate another ideation session – but how many of us would want to set that up? It seems much easier to take the new information and simply work it into our current set of tasks.

How can you tell and why should you revisit old ground?

Things change, information is not static and the believed facts can also change with time as a better understanding is developed.

So if we acknowledge this reality then the attitude that we should only plan, then act, denies the fact of change. Imagine a set and forget toy on a table, the inevitable outcome is that it will eventually fall off. This is the very reason why biology, engineering, mechanics and programming are full of feed back loops and reiterations, so monitoring and corrections can be made. It is naive to think our projects are somehow exempt from change.

The size, complexity, number of inter-dependencies all increase the requirements for re-discovery, so we should always be asking ourselves if it makes sense to continue, or to pause and do some form of re-discovery at regular intervals.

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.

Serendipity in the work place. LET IT BREATHE !!

Serendipity means a “fortunate happenstance” or “pleasant surprise” to most of us though we tend to think of it as an accidental discovery. The term serendipity was coined by Horatio (Horace) Walpole in 1754, in a letter he wrote to a friend. Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had made by referring to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. In this fairy tale the princes, were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”. (Wikipedia Serendipity)

Serendipity in the work place does it exist and how does it work?

So can the work place be a site for serendipity? The short answer is Yes. The reasons for its existence being difficult to experience or notice is that we work in a very focused and closed way, efficiency is god and there is little to no time to waste. The powers that be, demand visible work, results or at least to be seen making an effort in work so balance sheets can be filled and justified. Rather hectic really and ultimately a treadmill, rat race scenario. Ever wonder why big companies buy small ones. These small, startups etc. seem to always develop something better or new, while larger companies, to evolve, purchase and absorb. How do these small entities do it?

Well I suggest serendipity has something to do with it and the efficiency model we all follow to a varying degree.

Let’s look at a typical and basic profile of a small entity like a startup. Everyone knows everyone else, with only such a small group of people involved there are tight interactions between all the members. They often work long hours together focused on a common goal. This sounds like the efficiency model in larger companies, but it’s not. The common focus seen in small groups is more like gathering around a fire in a tribal community, exchanging stories and listening not only to the information but also the people giving the information. Watching body language, subtle tones in speech, facial expressions, eye contact between participants and much more, all the things we do without even noticing in our day to day lives with friends and family. The exchange of information and ideas gives a sense of the personal dynamics of the group, breathing together. This is not how large companies work, they are efficiently sterile, cold, meeting and agenda biased. In fact the opposite is often the end result. Instead of serendipity we get bahramdipityBahramdipity describes the suppression of serendipitous discoveries or research results by powerful individuals.

Serendipity, like all good things takes time, it even seems like a waste of time that could be used becoming more efficient in a particular task etc. As discussed previously in Efficiency may be a poisoned pill waiting to be swallowed? If we focus solely on increasing efficiency of one part we can often cause the whole to become less efficient. In the work place we keep our heads down and work hard, or at least appear to. The truth is that most work is not actually what we would measure as being work. Work is the final result of effort, often a physical embodiment of all that time. Yet the actual bulk of effort is not seen in the end result, all the thinking, planning, co-ordinating and inspiration is nowhere to be seen so we often ignore or even pretend to be actively working rather than be seen as passively working.

So are we all slack and only working about 20% of the time we’re at work? Well, yes and no. Consider a very difficult Sudoku puzzle or similar task, there is usually a burst of activity in the beginning, as we accomplish the easier parts of the problem. I call this the low fruit, because they are easy to pick. Then there’s a jump in the effort needed to accomplish some of the remaining tasks, until you hit what seems to be an impasse. Here the natural instinct is to keep hammering at the issue, we don’t want to fail because evolutionarily speaking, failure means death. We start going over the issue again and again in our minds, becoming more focused, more frantic and ultimately completely paralysed and inefficient. I call this looping which in itself can become the problem because we lose the relative scale of the problem. The result is that once you start looping and the more iterations you do, the bigger and more insurmountable the problem seems to become, it grows and grows.

Now consider a piece of personal philosophy, looping is when you go over something in your head more than 3 times, this is when you start to loop, STOP ! At this stage any insight should have shown up or it is not ready to be found by you yet, the only thing you will accomplish is to make the problem seem much larger than it is, much like bad news reported repeatedly.

Back to the Sudoku game, often if you walk away from it or distract yourself, part of the solution will seem to jump out at you from your peripheral mind, note I say mind not consciousness because it could be inspired by your subconscious. So what does this have to do with serendipity; well you need to allow space and to let your mind breathe. Music is not just notes it’s the space between them as well.

I propose that serendipity does exist in the work place, if you are willing to let it breathe, don’t rush around doing busy work (acting busy so you look like you’re working hard), take a break when looping and interact with others or just observe your environment. Next time have a coffee with someone, talk not only about work but other things and also listen.

Most of us nowadays are so heavily into virtual social networks, we forget the real social network, community. We also have a tendency, to treat social networking as an expedient and rapid way for us to climb the corporate ladder, this means our focus is almost always on ourselves and looking upwards, a ‘what’s in it for me?’ mentality.

Is this a one-way street?

Of course not, serendipity can not be focused, planned or made to happen by its very nature is unexpected almost random. The nature of serendipity is you don’t know when and in which direction it will come from, so if you are focused only on moving yourself up the corporate ladder, then you’ve already reduced your chances of a serendipity lightning strike. Often the key is to step back, distancing your self-interests and looking at the pieces to see which bits go together. You may see an obvious connection between staff or projects from different disciplines and/or silos.

The structure of serendipity

Innovations presented as examples of serendipity have an important characteristic: they were made by individuals able to “see bridges where others saw holes” and connect events creatively, based on the perception of a significant link.

The chance is an event, serendipity a capacity. The Nobel Prize laureate Paul Flory suggests that significant inventions are not mere accidents.


Serendipity – wikipedia

Bahramdipity is derived directly from Bahram Gur as characterized in the The Three Princes of Serendip. It describes the suppression of serendipitous discoveries or research results by powerful individuals.

The_Three_Princes_of_Serendip – wikipedia


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.


We can start with a goal in mind and then follow a process in order to reach that goal. I have been wondering if this approach sometimes stifles our creativity and what other approaches might also be valid.

 What if we started messing around and doing some random stuff?MessOnce we have done this for a while, we could stand back and look at our creation from different angles.

ArtPerhaps it will look like something useful and then we can decide what to do with it. Somewhere between random stuff and processes we can find creativity and innovation.

Goal Alignment

Ideally, a group put together from different areas would all be working on the same thing at any one time and towards the same goal. Often this is achieved in agile teams and works well.

Sometimes, there are other reasons to pull people together from different areas to work on several goals at once. Here is a way to get an idea about effective ways for groups like this to work together.

Examples of Goals

Ask the group to state their goals – in the example, the three goals are

  • Build Pyramids
  • Make Bricks
  • Destroy Pyramids

Put each goal across a page and also repeated down the left side – then ask for each pair of goals whether they align, conflict or are unconnected.

Goals GraphGoals Map

In this example

  • The goals of building pyramids and making bricks are aligned (and actually have a dependency).
  • The goals of building pyramids and destroying pyramids are conflicting
  • The goals of making bricks and destroying pyramids are unconnected

If we had a group put together with a goal map like this, we would need have discussions about the conflict and dependency so that we could work out the best way to start working together. In fact, we might ask why the people with the ‘destroy pyramids’ goal had been sent to this group in the first place.



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.


Thank you to Dave Snowden for his pointer to this John Kay post in a recent Cognitive Edge blog. It is a long read and I highly recommend making the time to read it.

Building on my recent post about the Gradient of Misinterpretation, we can be better off if we move indirectly towards a goal.

Many Paths to an Outcome

Here is my version of why obliquity can be good.

  • The first path taken is direct and leads us to our expected outcome of a box
  • The two middle paths lead to good and not-so-good outcomes, we are still looking for a box, and we find other things on the way that might be better
  • And the last path takes us under the mountain – sometimes other pathways are not so obvious

So how does this relate to the gradient of misinterpretation? It comes back to ambiguity, if we are a little ambiguous about what we want to achieve and how we describe it, then the pathways we take to understand it can take us to more interesting places.


Innovation and Misinterpretation

Misinterpreting something is often seen as a  bad thing – there is another way to look at it.

It is not possible to know for cetain if we have understood another point of view fully, because we are ourselves and not someone else – so there is always some degree of misinterpretation.  The other extreme is when we get something wrong such as interpreting a red traffic light as ‘go’.  The gradient of states in between could look something like this.

The Gradient of Misinterpretation

Between shared understanding and embarrassment lies the potential for innovation and new ideas.  This is one aspect of what we are trying to leverage when we use brainstorming – someone says one thing that helps us to think of something else.  It also works well on Twitter – the text limit forms a constraint that limits shared understanding.  If we can avoid going too close to embarrassment and wrong, we get a fertile field for new ideas.