A few months back I had a great conversation with Pat McDevitt, a good friend of mine who at the time was the Engineering Leader for MapQuest. MapQuest is going through some interesting changes and evolution from a product and engineering perspective and the topic of creating, sustaining, and driving a culture of innovation came up. This of course led us to talking about the concept of Intentional Serendipity.
We live in a marketplace where management-speak is fast, loose, and most of all abundant. Most of it makes me sick and you immediately lose “lets go hang out and get a drink” points when I hear you babble one out. You definitely don’t want to know what happens if you try to combine two of them together in a sentence. But I have a dirty little secret to confess. I have to say that no other management buzzword in the last five years has really captured much of my mind share as much as this phrase – Intentional Serendipity.
Now to be clear I am not really sure that it qualifies as “management-speak” just yet. I really don’t hear to many people talking about it. It hasn’t made it on to Bloomberg TV. I haven’t read to much about it in the blogosphere although its definitely out there. I have heard it only a smattering of times in podcasts. I definitely know that it has not been thrown around ubiquitously at the conferences and industry events that I attend. But it may be getting close to a break out.
Or perhaps I am just infatuated with the term because it most closely matches my style of how I like to cultivate innovation in my teams.
I am not sure where it began and I am sure word-smithy pundits have thought to put these two words together for a very long time. But by and large I am an engineer at heart and its rare for us to be considered word-smithy pundits.
The definition has to do with placing yourself in a situation where different ideas, processes, people, cultural norms are present (the intentional) and allowing those inputs to combine with your unique experience to create something new. A new experience, a new idea, a new business, a whole new perspective, whatever. There are lots of interesting definitions out there, but my personal favorite is short and sweet and comes from a Professional Learning educator for the YMCA in Toronto, named Peter Skillen. His quote:
“Getting to where ideas can find you!”
I have always been fascinated about how the “Spark” of an idea comes to be and what drives the following ignition of that spark into actions and effort to turn into into reality. Looking at my own life and career , its very clear to me that my own story is one full of Intentionally Serendipitous moments even though I may not have fully understood it at the time.
Once you realize that it is indeed a real “thing” it can become an incredibly powerful force to harness in business, in your life, in anything. But most especially for those of us in leadership positions in the Technology and Engineering disciplines. The Institute of Design at Stanford University or “d school” basically operates on a very formal process by combining multi-disciplinary students and members for creating the fertile ground of amazing moments of inspiration. Founded on the principles of Design Thinking it’s a pure application of Intentional Serendipity. There is a great TED talk from Corey Ford at a TED event at UNC that I highly recommend watching.
As a technology leader in an organization I believe its my duty to create these opportunities to create this fertile ground. Referencing back to Skillen’s definition, Its my duty to create the place where the ideas can find members of my teams. Oh sure, you have things like projects to get done, goals to accomplish, and the like – but providing these kinds of experiences for your teams is absolutely required if you want to create a culture where innovation can take root.
One of the ways I try to do that is by having “Out of the Blue Table Top Sessions” or as they have become to be known – Blue Table Top Sessions. Bringing in engineering and architects with different skillsets, combine them with product and business people, provide a fun atmosphere, plenty of time, food, and a couple of key ignition questions or challenges to get the ball rolling.
Creativity is highly encouraged. The tables are covered in blue paper and everyone is issued a silver marker, and a buzzer. Drawing on the tables with ideas, notes, thoughts, diagrams, doodles, everything is encouraged. Throughout the course of a session the ideas generated are captured, technologies explored, and an inventory is created for deeper follow-ups. The teams get to pick which they think are the best/most viable/ or ah-ha! ideas of the session and those are given extra attention.
Throughout the session the ideas flow, conversation is spurred on, and the only requirement is that attendees come with an open mind, assume no constraints or live within the ones defined in the challenges or ignition questions and allow people to have fun. The buzzers are there for when these basic rules are violated. Its hard for people to truly get upset when they are buzzed with a loud cow mooing, or dog barking, or like sound. Its all in good fun. Someone also has to be in charge of pacing and timing. The Coordinator. The Coordinator is an equal member of the team in every way, except that they have the added responsibility to keep the day moving along either by distributing new challenges, making judgement calls, or taking bio breaks. Its kind of like being the Dungeon Master playing a table top game of Dungeons and Dragons – except you get to be the half-elven fighter/mage too!
This process has been instrumental in many of the advancements on the tech and product sides of the business. Allowing the varied life experiences and unique skills of the people around you to contribute to the confluence of ideas is extremely satisfying as a leader and has a real benefit to the goals of your organization.
Whether you lead people formally or not, whether you lead an entire organization or just a small group – having a method of harnessing innovation is priceless. Are you a Intentional Serendipity Coordinator? If not…you failed your saving throw.