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


Not Perfect First Time

Not PerfectYou’ve spent the last 3 days putting together the deck for the workshop – speaking to the participants to get their input, collating, reviewing, updating and formatting.


So that we use the time in the workshop in the most efficient possible way.



A beautifully collated and presented deck is perfectly suited to use in a presentation – so we make the assumption that we should be creating one for a workshop as well.

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that the purpose of a workshop is to do some work – to identify issues, solve problems and get creative. If we start the session with a presentation deck, the participants will immediately focus on the presented content and not move very far from it. We might get some suggestions to fix the spelling, grammar or re-word a sentence – the focus will be on polishing the deck – not generating new content.

It can be a lot more useful to start with a ‘template’ type of deck which reflects the outcomes desired from the workshop and fill it in as the workshop progresses.

Even a template can act as a framing or anchoring bias and restrict the range of thinking – so if we are after innovation, it can be a problem.

So don’t try to get things perfect first time – allow for inputs, ideas and refinement – these things take time. If we do not allow the time, we miss opportunities for innovation and the quality that comes from stepping away and revisiting/reworking a piece later on.

Serendipity, Synergy and the paradox of perfection

Striving towards perfection is a noble and admirable goal, yet in the journey towards it, the ether of forgetfulness infects us all. The sad truth is we tend to forget the mistakes and errors we made as we moved towards our goal of perfection. This is shown in two major ways

1) we often show a lack of tolerance and patience towards others in our group on their own journey.

2) We seem to focus on the result not the requirements endured to get there.

The acceptance of youth and inexperience and the errors they need to make, seems to have been replaced by the ruthless coldness of intolerance, inflated ego and a general lack of understanding and compassion.

Knowledge is a wonderful thing and we often love to be seen as being knowledgeable. Yet the knowledgeable person, expert or leader often uses their knowledge like a fountain expounding information and like an over flowing vessel, often making a mess in their wake. The information that makes up knowledge does not make anyone wiser only more knowledgeable. The true wisdom is in knowing when to say something and when not to, when to help and when not to. The basic difference between knowledge and wisdom is how to use it, silence can be a far greater educational tool than providing the answers.

The journey of learning is what is truly memorable and the foundation of wisdom.

Once you have an answer, you are biased. We hold on to our answers tenaciously, fighting tooth and nail in their defence, rarely letting go of them and the more we do so, the harder and tighter we hold on to them and they us. There’s the rub, once devoted to an answer we become zealots and almost fanatical about its virtues. So in such an environment, how can we grow and develop. To quote many Hong Kong martial arts movies, “How can you learn when your cup is already full? Empty your cup.” The basic idea is that with preconceived ideas, how can new truths be discovered?

Your eyes see but they do not observe. 

Experts focus on their strengths while masters allow for possibilities to develop.

When leading, others follow but true leaders also listen.

We live in a flawed culture, we all know it but most of us seem not to even notice. Harsh words but when it comes to our daily lives we seem to expect perfection from all others but allow ourselves the benefit and luxury of compassion, understanding and tolerance.

Perfection is the goal to strive for and we all should aim to get as close as possible. Yet we mere humans are not perfect and therefore the end results of us striving for perfection often leads to less than perfect outcomes.

Look back through history and we see, a fairly recent cultural shift from destiny and the preordained, to we are responsible for our own life and all of our failings are our own doing.  “Les Miserables”. The cultural shift has been brutal, no longer can someone be down on their luck or a victim of circumstance, instead everything can be calculated, designed, controlled and predicted, we are responsible for our own lot in life.

There is a good TED talk by Alain de Botton on this subject

There were poor unfortunates and people who had a hard time of it but now they have been found wanting and therefore are losers and no-hopers. The tolerance and understanding of things beyond our control has been circumvented by the capitalistic ideal of perfection and just rewards. There is no longer room for errors, mistakes or failure and therefore anyone showing or seeming to harbour these traits is excised for the good of the “whole”.

A rather bleak view of the world but somehow for all our advances we seem to have forgotten our own humanity. I firmly believe in rewarding effort and work but I also believe that true advances don’t just happen but are often the result of many failures, mistakes and errors of judgment. It is only through these errors and mistakes that we can truly learn and grow. The individual must have a desire to develop and grow, and only through encouragement and support can this be truly achieved. Think of a small child, do you scold them whenever they make an error or do something wrong, or do you try to explain, protect and develop the individual. A strict military style may still work in the short term but ultimately you end up with small frightened children too scared to try or do anything, crippled by fear.

Is this where we want to be?

So, what about serendipity and synergy, well interestingly enough, most great advances in human knowledge owe all or part of their existence to the synergy of personalities and the events which resulted in the serendipity of discovery. So next time you’ve got all the answers and plans mapped out, take a step back and allow silence to teach and the synergy of the group find that point of serendipity…… Eureka. !!




The perils of Sound bites and the human mind.

The human ability to learn, take facts and abstract, invent and then innovate is very impressive. All these possibilities and then more so. We live in a world of information abundance, we google, we search and we condense, all with the goal to assimilate knowledge and be able to function.

The sheer amount of data, facts, ideas and interpretations of data, available to any of us, has had a profound impact upon the way we all function and behave in our day to day lives. The ‘data explosion’ impact ranges from work, socially, ‘family and friend’ and even our own development and the way we see ourselves.

Think about it, the amount of stuff we are exposed to is increasing every year, books added to the web, new research, new facts, new ideas, new concepts etc. etc… The human animal is a marvel but to cope with an inundation of information we fall back on the tried and true method of filtering the incoming data to make sense of it. We all do it and some better than others. The very process of filtering means we, collate, prioritise, group and rapidly make evaluations upon the various pieces of information bombarding our senses. The mind grasps at straws and we often jump to rapid conclusions and interpret the apparent facts according to our own experiences and world view. This is a very efficient way to process information and to be able to make informed decisions. So what’s the problem with this system of behaviour?
Now to answer this, allow me to briefly cover optical illusions.

The classic examples of the brain being fooled by optical illusion such as the rabbit/duck illusion,

are testimony that we all do it. In an effort to make sense we rapidly jump to conclusions, very handy when trying to pattern match. Evolutionarily speaking one of our greatest abilities.

Wikipedia defines an optical illusion (or visual illusion) as being characterised by visually perceived images that differ from objective reality. Information gathered by the eye is processed in the brain to give a perception that does not tally with a physical reality of the source.

There are three main types:

1) Literal optical illusions create images that are different from the objects that make them,

2) Physiological illusions that are the effects of excessive stimulation of a specific type (brightness, colour, size, position, tilt, movement), and

3) Cognitive illusions, the result of unconscious inferences. The brain trying to understand perceives the object based on prior knowledge or assumptions (‘fills in the gaps’).

Pathological visual illusions arise from a pathological exaggeration in physiological visual perception mechanisms causing the aforementioned types of illusions. A pathological visual illusion is a distortion of a real external stimulus and are often diffuse and persistent.

Physiological illusions, such as the afterimages following bright lights, or adapting stimuli of excessively longer alternating patterns (contingent perceptual aftereffect), are presumed to be the effects on the eyes or brain of excessive stimulation or interaction with contextual or competing stimuli of a specific type—brightness, colour, position, tilt, size, movement, etc.
Optical illusions are often classified into categories including the physical and the cognitive or perceptual, and contrasted with optical hallucinations.

Of all the optical illusions, the ones I wish to focus on here are the cognitive illusions.

Cognitive illusions are assumed to arise by interaction with assumptions about the world, leading to “unconscious inferences”, an idea first suggested in the 19th century by the German physicist and physician Hermann Helmholtz. Cognitive illusions are commonly divided into ambiguous illusions, distorting illusions, paradox illusions, or fiction illusions.

1. Ambiguous illusions are pictures or objects that elicit a perceptual “switch” between the alternative interpretations. The Necker cube is a well-known example; another instance is the Rubin vase.

2. Distorting or geometrical optical illusions are characterised by distortions of size, length, position or curvature. A striking example is the Café Wall illusion. Other examples are the famous Muller-Lyer illusion and Ponzo illusion.

3. Paradox illusions are generated by objects that are paradoxical or impossible, such as the Penrose triangle or impossible staircase seen, for example, in M.C Escher’s Ascending and Descending and Waterfall. The triangle is an illusion dependent on a cognitive misunderstanding that adjacent edges must join.

4. Fictions are when a figure is perceived even though it is not in the stimulus.

Now allow me to put forward the idea that as we become increasingly time poor and information burdened we increasingly begin to filter, even to the stage that we become unaware of it. This is where it can get dangerous.

I’m not talking about optical illusions jumping up at you in the workplace or in your day to day lives but I am talking about the way we all reduce information and events into “byte” sized pieces. Think about it, we dot point things, prioritise, we use jargon and, my pet hate, we make up acronyms. All in the name of efficiency and understanding. We have become a sound bite culture in an attempt to make sense and deal with all this stuff.

So what’s the problem? Well the reduction and filtering is. Think about it, reducing something means leaving something out or changing the original to a more compact form. Filtering means to sort something and then to determine what’s most important and then effectively ignoring other things to varying degrees.

When I was working in a laboratory I was told the story of a technique which was written up in a scientific journal. The Professor in our lab was trying to repeat the described technique and tried repeatedly, only resulting in failure. He followed the outlined procedure to the letter but to no avail. He ended up deciding to ring the parties concerned and found out that they had actually written in their original paper, that after a certain step in the process, they had gone to lunch for 2 hours. The scientific journal thought that this was not needed and removed this notation from the final publication. The irony was that without the 2 hour pause in the procedure the technique didn’t work at all.

Sound bites can be just as dangerous because often you don’t know what has been filtered out and things can be taken out of context.

To highlight just how misleading sound bites can be, consider an ecological study conducted by a friend of mine. He was collecting data on the kangaroo densities in a particular area and some of the variables which he looked at included vegetation type, terrain, lightning strikes etc. Now when he processed the data statistically there was a very strong positive correlation between the number of kangaroos and the number of lightning strikes. We joked that kangaroos obviously sprung up from lightning strikes; ridiculous but supported by the statistics. The real reason was that lightning strikes meant that a tree was burnt or a fire started. This meant that the native vegetation sprouted regrowth, which was tender and plentiful attracting the kangaroos into the area. So without the extra information about fire and Australian ecosystems the data could be misinterpreted.

I propose that in the course of dealing with an influx of information by reducing it to dot points, catch phrases and sound bites, we can filter things to the extent that their true nature can be lost.

I also think that this culture of sound bites can lead to ambiguity, distortion, paradox and even fiction, like cognitive optical illusions.

So next time, you’re making sense of information or trying to convey and teach, remember to check if any of these are possible :

1. Ambiguity – Can your abridged version have alternative interpretations or be perceived in more than one way?

2. Distortion – Are any parameters you’re touching upon, affected by how you choose to focus on them?

3. Paradox – Can your abridged version lead to a cognitive misunderstanding resulting in a paradoxical or impossible conclusion?

4. Fiction – Can your abridged version be perceived incorrectly?

So when you’re tempted to sound bite a concept or idea just remember Benny Hill “Never Assume because you make an Ass out of U and Me”.

Often clarity is aided by multiple perspectives (yes my sound bite).

Sound bites work because the brain is driven to define reality based on simple, familiar objects, it creates a ‘whole’ image from individual elements but this is also a potential problem. This is the reason taking them out of context can be very dangerous and some people do it on purpose to discredit valid concepts or people… a slippery slope.



Three main types of optical illusions explained:

1) Literal optical illusions create images that are different from the objects that make them,

One of the most well-known literal illusions is the painting done by Charles Allan Gilbert titled All is Vanity. In this painting, a young girl sits in front of a mirror that appears to be a skull. There isn’t actually a skull there, however, the objects in the painting come together to create that effect.

2) Physiological illusions that are the effects of excessive stimulation of a specific type (brightness, colour, size, position, tilt, movement)

The checker shadow illusion. Although square A appears a darker shade of grey than square B, the two are exactly the same.
Drawing a connecting bar between the two squares breaks the illusion and shows that they are the same shade.

In this illusion we see square ‘A’ and ‘B’ as not the same colour, but when the image puts the two square next to each other; they do appear to be exactly the same colour.

3) Cognitive illusions, the result of unconscious inferences. The brain trying to understand perceives the object based on prior knowledge or assumptions (‘fills in the gaps’).

Cognitive Illusion Image – My Wife & My Mother-in-Law. Do you see a young woman or an old lady?

Wikipedia Optical_illusion Lesson What are optical illusions; definition; types
Wikipedia Sound_bite

Sound Bites

If you take only one thing away from reading this post – it is a caution to be very careful with taking only one thing away from any interaction.

We are evolved to filter information so that we only need to focus on things that are important to us – that’s why painters can put a few brush-strokes on a canvas and we can interpret it as a person walking on the beach in the distance.

Person on BeachWe filter without realising it – if we did not filter, we would be overloaded with information and find it very difficult to proceed.

When we have a conversation with someone, we imagine that they understand everything that we say in the way that we intended for it to be meant. The only thing that we can be certain of, in fact, is that the person will have interpreted what we said in the way that made sense to them. Of course what makes sense to the other person might or might not be aligned with what we actually intended.

One time, I came away from a conversation wondering why the person had started to debate the pros and cons of scrum when I had been meeting with them about something else. On reflection, I realised that my job title at the time contained the word ‘Agile’ so that person thought that I was only speaking about scrum teams and the delivery process. It was likely that the other person had a very different definition of agile – mine is a very broad one and includes Lean, Cynefin, Design Thinking and many other useful ideas and approaches. Others might define agile as ‘scrum’ and not much more for all sorts of reasons. This means that the other person was filtering my part of the conversation through a ‘Kim is here to talk about scrum’ lens which led to a complete misinterpretation of what I was asking about.

How does this relate to the title of the post ‘Sound Bites’?

We in the Lean and Agile communities have discussed and investigated many concepts and are in the habit of using short descriptions for very complex ideas. Within the community, I can say something like ‘I like to use the Cynefin Framework to help me determine which approaches are compatible with the system that I am working with’ and lots of people would understand what I meant to say. But I have spent a lot of time reading about these ideas, attending conferences, speaking with experts and trying them out so the following terms are loaded with deep meaning;

  • Cynefin Framework
  • Approaches
  • System

These terms are at risk of becoming ‘sound bites’ – the main thing that an audience hears and therefore believes is the main message. They could then try and apply one of the concepts, or an extrapolation of these ideas and end up with a completely unexpected result.

This is not the first time ‘sound bites’ have happened in our human history. For example, Bob Emeliani wrote a great post recently about Frederick Winslow Taylor and how people partially applied his Principles of Scientific Management and ended up with a sub-optimal result.

What can we do about the problem with ‘sound bites’?

We need tailor our conversations to our audience. In a group of deep experts, it is fine for us to use our shorthand terms and jargon – but in a mixed group or with non-experts, it is as if we are teachers providing all the answers to students and not teaching them how to learn – so our words are ripe for misinterpretation.

Now that you have read this post and therefore interpreted it in your own ways, I would be very interested to hear about your experiences with sound bites, or what the term ‘sound bites’ means to you.

Please leave a comment or find me on Twitter: @kb2bkb