Innovation begins with serendipity

You often hear that innovation begins with serendipity: Someone accidentally stumbled upon something brilliant which miraculously was exactly what the world needed. It almost seems like a kind of magic.

Serendipity: “the fact of something interesting or pleasant happening by chance”

Oxford Dictionary

Why serendipity is important for innovation can be found in the story from which the word originated. Serendipity was invented by Horace Walpole in the 18th century. In a letter to a friend he tried to describe a discovery he made about members of High Society, based on clues he deducted from their behaviour. Walpole stated that it was exactly how the discoveries happened in the story “The Three Princes of Serendip”, and thus created the word serendipity as an accurate way to describe his experience.

The story begins as follows:

“In ancient times there existed in the country of Serendip, in the Far East, a great and powerful king by the name of Giaffer. He had three sons who were very dear to him. And being a good father and very concerned about their education, he decided that he had to leave them endowed not only with great power, but also with all kinds of virtues of which princes are particularly in need…”

The king found scholars in various fields to teach his sons, and since the boys were also gifted with great intelligence they learned fast and were soon highly skilled in the arts and sciences. The king was satisfied with their progress but wanted his sons to gain some real experience as well, so he sent them on a long journey. During that journey the sons had many adventures and unravelled many mysteries with the aid of their intelligence, ample observations and wits. In one of the adventures the three sons were able to help a camel driver to retrieve a missing camel.

They were able to tell the driver that the camel had a lame leg, was blind to one side, missed a tooth and was carrying butter and honey. When the brothers were asked how they knew so many details about the missing camel they explained that they just made sense of the tracks and little tell-tale signs they observed along the road earlier.

Innovation almost seems to be a matter of being at the right place at the right time, therefor innovation is often seen as a serendipitous process. According to the dictionary serendipity refers to accidental discoveries. But if you were to rely on luck alone it is questionable whether you would have many accidental discoveries. 
However, it is possible to set the stage so that a serendipitous event might occur. The answer how to lend serendipity a helping hand can actually be found in “The Three Princes of Serendip”, the same story on which Walpole based his new word.

The first principle is movement.

“The Three Princes of Serendip” was a story about three young men on a perilous journey. During their travels they made many discoveries. That was exactly the reason why their father wanted them to venture into the wide world in the first place: to see and experience new things first hand. If the prices would have stayed in the palace, they wouldn’t have had all those adventures, and they never would have had any reason to bring their knowledge and skills into practice. 

The princes were on the move, in search for something. To make an accidental discovery there needs to be movement. You need to start a journey. Whether it is a real journey to foreign places or a mental journey in search for a solution, you need to undertake action, put the cogwheels in motion and start moving. Because you are moving, you see and experience new things that might lead to new insights or discoveries . By moving you are setting things in motion, and it is easier to keep moving when you have already started. One discovery leads to another.

Without activity there is no discovery. If you stay behind your desk staring at the ceiling you probably won’t find anything new.

The second principle is observation

In the story the three princes were travelling with a purpose. But although they had a specific goal, they allowed themselves the time to take in their surroundings and observe small details that weren’t related to the quest. If they only had eyes for their quest, they wouldn’t have been able to help the camel driver with information about his lost camel.

The princes kept their eyes and their minds open during their travels. They carefully observed all the new impressions and made a mental note of everything they saw. They treated everything they observed as something new and gave it their full attention, almost like a child that sees something for the first time. It is easy to take what you see or granted, and to dismiss it as old news. A lot of discoveries were made because someone took the time to have a proper look at something without taking it for granted. 

Observation is an important skill if you want to innovate. You cannot discover something if you can’t even see it’s there, let alone imagine its possibilities.

The third principle is meaning

In the story about the camel driver the three brother made a number of seemingly insignificant observations. They became meaningful when the camel driver asked them if they he’d seen his lost camel. Because they tried to find meaning behind the unconnected facts, they were able to deduce that some of the things they had observed were related to the lost camel.

The story of the canal driver illustrates how seemingly unconnected observations come together and form a new idea. The princes were sincerely interested in their environment, and tried to make sense of everything they heard, smelled, tasted and saw. And because they were able to interpret their observations using the diverse knowledge and skills they possessed, they could connect the observations to the lost camel.

The things you observe while you’re on the move could be meaningful, but you cannot make sense of what you observe without knowledge. Try not to limit yourself to a specific field of knowledge. Just as with the second principle, keep an open mind and combine all the knowledge and skills you have optioned in different fields, just like the three princes.

Innovation indeed starts with serendipity, but it is not just chance that leads to innovation. By using the three principles Movement, Observation it is possible to tweak the conditions for serendipity. After all, the three brothers weren’t depending on luck alone either.

So get out of that chair and start searching.
You might not find what you are searching for, but you might find something you need.

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