Innovation management and serendipity ?


Innovation can be managed, from ideation to value extraction on the market, their are several tools and processes that can ensure we do not lose track (lean startup, design thinking, disruptive thinking etc.). There is - however - a huge part of serendipity in action, especially for disruptive innovation (less likely for incremental innovation). Based on your experience, what is the level of serendipity for innovation that eventually *delivered* value ? Can you share some examples?

In addition to tooling and processes for innovation itself, serendipity is also something that can be managed in some way, or at least encouraged (e.g. number of connections within an ecosystem, outside the ecosystem, events, team informal exchange, active listening etc.). What are you doing to make it happen ?

Julien Clausse
32 months ago

12 answers


From my experience the key to serendipity is diversity.

Knowing needs, boundaries and roadblocks is very important - for sure.
But - as I experimented on many occasions - the best thing to do is to match diverse people with different backgrounds in order to get unexpected results which are stretching the boundaries.

People you work with every day most likely know about the same stuff you know.
They all compute in a similar fashion and get to similar results.

The biggest innovation potential lives in the boundaries of common knowledge, where different disciplines overlap (just a little, may be).
I had great stuff coming out when I had an engineer, a designer and a marketer sit together and get rolling.
Their different ways of thinking generates way more creative friction and they complement each other way better than "people of one kind"...

Jürgen Bauer
32 months ago
Very well put, Jürgen . - Jerry 32 months ago
Thanks Jürgen - indeed, it is about making things happen. I tend to call it the "Gardener Approach" where the job is to set up the right conditions for the (creativity) rose to blossom. Diversity is one of the conditions indeed. - Julien 32 months ago
Thanks, Jürgen. May I add to diversity: Equity and Inclusion? - Beth 32 months ago
Diversity is not inclusion - Dr. David E. 19 months ago

We've been doing breakthrough and some disruptive innovation, including global scale (, for over 20 years.

Minimizing or managing if you will serendipity has more to do with being tuned in to the world and all of its major trends and the simplest themes in human needs and their at the moment, emerging and future potential manifestations in how they are or could be met.

Far too few firms engage in the persistent, versus the periodic, activities necessary to do this well.

FYI - take a look at our Adaptive Innovation white paper at or at at my LinkedIn page.

Adam Malofsky, PhD
32 months ago
Good points. I shared something similar. I think ensuring the organization understands the market, trends, and needs will drive solutions. - Dawn 32 months ago
Great points, Adam. Adapting to the needs of the changing environment and focused efforts are key. Some people get "lucky" a bit more often . - Jerry 32 months ago
Thanks Adam - will certainly look at it ! - Julien 32 months ago
DITTO - Dr. David E. 19 months ago

I think key to encouraging serendipity is to make sure everyone knows what the goals are and what roadblocks stand in the way. It is important to inspire the key innovators. They want to invent something that will be utilized and would love to become the hero. They need to know where the needs of the organization and the market are. Often those with the ability to invent are in the dark about the needs of the company and the needs of the customer.
I have seen examples where R&D staff are immersed in customer research to see how the products are being used and where they are not meeting needs. If it is not possible for everyone to be involved in gathering the insights, sharing videos and stories can go a long way to motivate the technical staff.
PS I remember putting together timelines where we would schedule innovation and label it "a miracle happens".

Dawn Houghton
32 months ago
Thanks Dawn. Interestingly, this rings a bell regarding storytelling applied in here: the better your (creativity / innovation) context is shared and understood, the better for the energies to be aligned. And, I agree with you, there is a lot about alignement - from real market insights to those who "invent in the dark" as you say. - Julien 32 months ago
Interesting, We created storytelling class to help technologists explain and sell what they are inventing. Communication is needed both ways. - Dawn 32 months ago
Help SALES or Help Profitize OR Both? - Dr. David E. 19 months ago

We have been experimenting with the "innovation pipeline" idea at a largest healthcare system. So far, the results are positive.

The pipeline idea of
ideation -> experimentation -> monetization
is borrowed from pharmaceutical R&D where the serendipity needed to be managed. The funnel shape of the pipeline reflects the "fail fast, fail early" concept.

Our lessons learned are to optimize the "controls" in between the steps. Too little controls burns resources too fast, whereas too much controls crushes creativity.

With such a pipeline, the process can be managed, the culture can be fostered, and the results can be measured.

Creative minds are driving the innovation pipeline. Thus, the end products are "serendipitous".

Simon Lin
32 months ago
Thanks Simon - that is an interesting point: how much control do you want to have in a creative process. The balance is hard to find indeed. - Julien 32 months ago
Great advice! How many checkpoints did you build in? Which time distance? - Jürgen 32 months ago
Balance in my favor - Dr. David E. 19 months ago

Innovation is as an incremental process, usually accomplished by those who are not satisfied by stuff working "good enough" and are willing to challenge the old "we've always done it this way" approach.

By incremental, I mean that we couldn't innovate a laptop computer without the desktop just sitting there and asking to be made portable.

Serendipity has something to do with it, but it is a minor component in my view. For example, one could innovate a great product that is ahead of its time and/or due to various market forces (a/k/a bad luck) it never takes off. Sometimes, we just need to cross paths with the right people at the right time (Tesla and Westinghouse...). Yet, without a wide-eyed look at the world, fire in the belly to make it better and a good plan, serendipity just won't do.

Jerry Nonkovic
32 months ago
Thanks Jerry - this is interesting since it raises the point of invention vs. innovation. To me, something invented that never reaches a market is not innovation. Going back to design-thinking, innovation is at the core of desirability, feasibility and viability (so, that includes market reach and success). - Julien 32 months ago
As I'v e written above given our deep, practical, commercial expertise - innovation is not incrememtal. If one say that, then the word has indeed been fully bastardized. Evolutionary product development is about nudges and tweaks. It's just product development on a day to day basis playing around with minor invention changes of existing knowhow in a narrow area. It's not innovation. - Adam 32 months ago
Innovation - real; innovation is truly different - it's transformational. It's about order of magnitude effects on profitability and in customer experiences. Design thinking has nothing to do with it. It's just another word for customer focused common sense Transformation? Real innovation? That's about idealized consumer experiences within varied contexts, situations - futures made real. - Adam 32 months ago
Thanks Adam - I agree with you that Innovation is transformational indeed, but there are several levels to be considered. Incremental is also valid (and widely used term). Innovation is related to "new", and looking at the world with new eyes. Design thinking is a very powerful tool, even for transformational, not because it is user centred (and people can express their pains), 1/2 - Julien 32 months ago
2/2 but because you can uncover some tension points: things not said, that people can't even mention. This is a great way to reconsider the world and see it with new eyes, and can be the starting point of great transformational innovations. - Julien 32 months ago
To quote Sir Isaac Newton, we see further by standing on the shoulders of giants that came before us. Julien, your comment on invention vs. innovation is at the center of the argument. Innovation is defined as transformation of the existing (from Latin "innovare "meaning "to change, to restore, to renew. Invention is from Latin "inventus" - to discover, to come upon. - Jerry 32 months ago
Semantic differences aside, I agree with Adam's assertion that innovation that delivers real benefits to customers in a real, profitable way can also be transformational, even if only in its impact on the customers lives. - Jerry 32 months ago
However, if we stay true to the origin of terms, something needs to be discovered (invented) before it can be change or renewed (innovated). Not that it matters, really. Those that can, do. Those that can't do write about it. - Jerry 32 months ago
Those that can't do - write about it. AGREED - Dr. David E. 19 months ago

> What are you doing to make it happen ?

When I was at a corporate, doing innovation, I regularly (~quarterly) attended events were other innovations were present. Could be a demo day (or selection day) of an accelerator or a innovation competition. This really helped me in realizing the different paces and extended my innovation network.

Ad Bresser
32 months ago
Make it happen? That's a long one but a few simple comments paint the picture based upon our deep experience ( It's about persistent;y being in touch with the wor;d's big trends, up, down, all around in many varied disciplines that make us hyper aware of technologies in all areas and how they are used linked to abstracted, idealized consumer experiences within said contexts - Adam 32 months ago
The latter can be personal - it should be if you want real success for yourself - but also be persistent corporate function and activity. That's where big impact, transformation comes from. It allows you to the forest and the trees together. - Adam 32 months ago

Here ya go Julien....hope this is all somehow helpful. Heres our White Paper on Adaptive Innovation.

The best innovation book somewhat recently? "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson.

Here's his Ted Talk - one of the best I've ever heard.

Adam Malofsky

Adam Malofsky, PhD
32 months ago
Thanks Adam ! - Julien 32 months ago

The term "disruptive" was originally used with reference to changing the MARKET; as such it should not be used for inventions ((since it is too early to say at that stage).
A difference should be recognized between INVENTIONS VS INNOVATIONS, with the latter being less likely to have a major impact on the existing market.

A "deliberate" effort to create innovations starts with a question: "How can I do this better?" Serendipity is not likely to play a major role in this process.

On the other hand, investigation of new technical areas while conducting basic research involves accumulating data and knowledge as the work progresses, with a specific goal or destination not necessarily defined. In this case, "serendipity" is in fact a recognition, based on a broader knowledge, that a new observation, property, etc., could have a practical utility. It is in no way a "chance" event.

Karel Petrak
32 months ago
See Julien's comments to Jerry's contribution above - innovation = intersection of desirability, viability and feasibility, as the Design Thinkers say. You could surely enter the circle with new basic research discoveries. Serependipidty comes in when you can match this with offereing a new solution to something which is desirable to humans, and also find a viable business. Now that's innovation. - Jürgen 32 months ago
No - it is just luck - Dr. David E. 19 months ago
Luck = success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one's own actions. Clearly, in case of inventions, the luck “favours the prepared”. Without preparation, planned or unintended, luck itself does not do anything. - Karel 19 months ago
RESEARCH: Galton's Board - Dr. David E. 19 months ago

"Serendipity", as defined in Oxford English Dictionary, is "The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way". I do not believe that inventions come to pass by chance.

Karel Petrak
32 months ago
Agree = THANK YOU - Dr. David E. 19 months ago

I'm a huge believer in Clay Christensen's 'Jobs to be done' theory from his new book Competing against luck.
I also think its important to define the difference between invention and innovation, I outline that in this article and also look at the definition of a 'valuable idea'.

Don Smith
31 months ago
Work trumps Luck. - Dr. David E. 19 months ago

Serendipity in innovation is an outcome, impact or happening that wasn't anticipated or planned. One recently in the Middle East where I found I myself being placed in an office with an influential global leader. After a brief introduction and ongoing discussions, we found very quickly area's of commonality in what we did, what we wanted and in particular risk taking. I was delighted to meet someone with the same vision, a similar approach, experience, market knowledge and mentality (to product development) as my own. Within a few days we were discussing outside the office global scale developments that would add significant value to us both in bringing together our plans - which had nothing to do with the work we both undertaking at the time.

Paul D
28 months ago

It's the culture that really plays a large role here. Does leadership promote a disruptive innovative culture. as they say culture eat strategy for breakfast

Wayne Tarken, CSM, SPHR
26 months ago

Have some input?