Getting Lucky

Matt Kingdon, the cofounder of the innovation consulting firm ?What If!, has spent the past 20 years on the front lines of innovation, bringing new products and services to market and helping organizations, including the likes of Unilever, PepsiCo, Google, and Virgin Atlantic, become more innovative.  Kingdon argues that it is corporate innovators battling within large, established organizations who are the real heroes of innovation.

In particular, Kingdon argues that the phenomenon of serendipity—seemingly happy accidents that occur during an innovation—is less random than we might think. By gaining a better understanding of the patterns by which serendipity occurs, large organizations can increase their chances of these sorts of happy accidents taking place.

At Pfizer, for example, the discovery of Viagra was in no small part helped by the fact that the researchers’ offices were, in their own words, “old and dilapidated”; they were crammed into a small space, with the entire team of chemists and biologists bumping into one another all the time. This close, seemingly random proximity helped the flow of information and the cross-pollination of projects and thinking. It was via a corridor conversation between two scientists working on very different projects that one of the scientists learned of a breakthrough in another field that led to the development of Viagra.

According to Kingdon, companies that deliberately foster serendipitous cultures and environments are more likely to hit the innovation jackpot. “Serendipitous invention and the creative exploitation of ideas is a muscle that you can choose to work out or allow to wither,” he says.

In The Science of Serendipity, Kingdon dissects the ways in which corporations are designed to support or obstruct innovation. He traces the dilemmas that executives in a wide variety of firms face, and details the steps taken to overcome the issues and get great ideas across the goal line.

The book identifies and examines five key factors. First, it looks at the sort of person who is good at serendipity, arguing that the best people to lead innovation initiatives have respect for the organization but do not revere it so much that they cannot bend the rules.

Second, people who are good at innovation deliberately seek out new stimuli to provoke their thinking. Third, they are adept at making ideas as real as possible quickly, using rough models and prototypes to give ideas concrete expression. The fourth factor in fostering serendipitous innovation is designing a physical environment that forces people who are working on different projects onto a collision course that causes them to bump into one another and cross-pollinate their thinking. Finally, Kingdon offers advice on how to deal with organizational politics, which can so easily derail innovation.

“I think the real heroes of innovation are the people in large organizations who have all the stress and strain that we all know so well that come with an organization that, let’s face it, makes its money through repeating itself, maybe doing things a little bit better. But these are the real heroes of innovation. How can they make things happen in a big organization?”

His advice on battling the corporate machine? “It’s part of organizational life, so get over it and get on with it!”


Matt Kingdon, The Science of Serendipity, Wiley, 2013

This was originally published in What we mean when we talk about innovation by Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove (Infinite Ideas, 2016).

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