In search of that elusive serendipity

Almost from the beginning of our research on telework we had the alleged problem of loss of serendipity — that chance encounter by people in the hallway or lunchroom where the conditions were just right to lead to major positive changes in . . . whatever. Almost from the beginning we have been in search of that elusive serendipity during telework. That Aha! moment that transforms where you collectively are going. In my experience those prized chance hallway encounters among co-workers rarely are serendipitous because one factor is usually missing.

I had a truly serendipitous experience in Santa Barbara, California, in the Spring of 1971 when I asked Sam Clawson, a regional planner in that city, about how the aerospace industry could help him. His answer: “Why can’t you techies do something about traffic?” Bingo! My Aha! light went on and soon changed the direction of my career. Then, two years later, what I started to call The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff became Telecommuting. Now the question is: could that happen today or are the chances diminished when most information workers are teleworking, spread across the countryside?

The ingredients

Consider what’s needed for serendipity to happen. Two people with related but differing experiences and knowledge bases meet to discuss an issue that resonates with both of them. In my case my working experience in 1971 was in what is now called systems engineering, with a knowledge base in physics, optical and electronic engineering. In Sam’s case his experience was in regional planning; I don’t know what his knowledge base contained but he certainly had an active curiosity. He expanded on his question about traffic with: “You guys can put man on the moon. Getting to the moon is complicated; so is traffic. You know how to do complicated things. So fix traffic.”

Simple, no? Not so much.

In my opinion, the key to serendipity lies in the participants having different views of the problem. That sets up the tension that resolves only when the outcome goes in an altered direction. From “I’m trying to manage traffic when there’s too many cars on the road” to “So reduce the number of cars on the road by getting many workers to work at or near home. And, by the way, make it fairly inexpensive.”

Now all this interaction between me and Sam took only a few minutes. I never saw Sam again. But my new trajectory had started.

Where does it happen?

Serendipity can happen anywhere, anytime. But does it require face-to-face interaction? In 1971 my meeting with Sam had to be face-to-face, or did it? Could it have happened if we were both at our respective desks and chatting over the phone? Maybe. I remember that, since I was far out of the office at the time, I wasn’t distracted by the usual office environment. So maybe getting out of the office was a factor in my increased acceptance of new ideas.

That might just be the trick: if you have an apparently intractable problem try getting out of your usual surroundings. Maybe you’ll run into someone or something that gives you a new insight; the Aha! moment. That may happen during a lunch or hallway conversation at work. But, in my experience that’s unlikely; serendipity is more likely to happen in other than the usual office environment.

But what about big tech companies like Apple? They built special buildings designed to promote interaction among employees from different parts of the company. Well, such interaction is good when you’re in the process of polishing your product; making incremental improvements. Not so good when you’re looking for startlingly new approaches. For that I think you have to go elsewhere. Steve Jobs went to Xerox Parc labs to see the interactive machines that he copied and morphed into the iMac. He didn’t do it by simply asking his fellow workers at Apple for new ideas.

It is important for successful teleworking to have quality communication among employees But the importance lies in reducing anomie and promoting or maintaining the organization’s culture; making everyone to feel part of the team. Having everyone on the same page is important for overall effectiveness. Having everyone on the same page, groupthink, is not particularly conducive to those Aha! moments. Serendipity begins away from home.

Yet in 2020 with the internet there are many ways you can be away from home without leaving home. So serendipity is still lurking around the virtual corner. Just make sure you’re communicating with people who have a different perspective than yours. Wherever they are.

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