John Hagel on serendipity

Futurist and consultant John Hagel caught my attention with a talk titled “Shaping Serendipity”. He’s introduced by John Seely Brown, his frequent collaborator. Brown and Hagel are writing a new book together, and a chapter focuses on serendipity. (And as a chapter in the book I’m failing to write is also on serendipity, I made a point of attending…)

Hagel offers a definition of serendipity: “Unexpected encounters that surprise and delight.” He notes that, in telling people about the session, they’d react first with delight, and then with surprise that this could be an idea worth a whole sesson. “What can geeks, nerds and algorithms tell us about serendipity?”

He believes there are techniques we can use to shape serendipity. Deploying these techniques, we can increase the quality and the chance of these unexpected encounters.

To contexualize the idea, Hagel explains that he and Seely Brown are postulating a major shift in business climate between 1965 and today. They’re developing an index that tracks a business environment that looks increasingly competitive and difficult. They suggest that the economywide return on assets (in the US, focusing on publicly traded companies) has decreased sharply from 1965 to the present – return on assets is roughly 1/4 of what it was in 1965. This is true even within the set of highly succesful companies. And looking at the mean years of survival for companies listed in the S&P 500 has been reduced from 75 years in the 1930s to roughly 10 years now. In other words, corporations are under strong and increasing pressure. Competition is intensifying, through digital infrastructures and policy trends that favor competition.

To survive this change, companies need to move from a focus on knowledge flow, rather than on knowledge stocks. Corporations used to develop a sphere of knowledge, then monetized it by producing products. Now they need to embrace knowledge flow, and see that flow as the center of value. This means we’re always learning, always discovering and always refreshing our sphere of knowledge. This requires us to develop pull mechanisms, ways of pulling knowledge in from the world. Search is a basic form of pull mechanism, but it has its limits. How do we find things when we don’t know what we’re looking for, when we don’t know what’s out there?

Hagel suggests that we need to shape ourselves so that we’re attracting people and knowledge that we want to be surprised by. This requires us to adopt a different model for serendipity, one that doesn’t believe that serendipity is about pure chance. Within that model, all you can do is embrace it and be open to it, but you can’t attract more or better encounters. Hagel’s model involves making changes to environments, practices and your preparedness to maximize serendipity.

In understanding environments and serendipity, Hagel posits a conflict between Tom Friedman and Richard Florida. Friedman tells us the world is flat, that location doesn’t matter, and that we can access resources from anywhere in the world at any time. Richard Florida suggests that the world is spiky. More and more people are concentrating in urban settlements, in the US and around the world. If the world is so flat, why are people gathering in these places?

If you’re in a place where there’s a concentration of talent, your chances of serendipity increase radically. People move to cities in part because they realize the value of unexpected encounter. If location didn’t matter, why is travel increasing, globally? Physical environment matters and enhances serendipity.

Virtual environments can create serendipity as well. We have a choice of where we participate in virtual environments. One of the values of social networking sites is the likelihood we’ll encounter an unexpected link via a social connection. Other environments are created explicitly to generate serendipity – a platform like Innocentive, which invites unusual solutions to technical problems, can create unexpected connections. An MIT spin-off company, Sense Networks, is studying traffic patterns based on users who allow their mobile phones to be monitored. They’re able to track the flow of people as a result. If you choose to be tracked, Sense Networks will help you discover what “tribe” you belong to, and where your tribe hangs out.

Hagel cites a pair of people (both friends of mine) who have mastered the art of creating serendipity by carefully choosing their environments. One is Yossi Vardi, an Israeli technology entrepreneur who spends his life attending technology conferences and walking the halls. Another is Joi Ito, a legendary global traveller, who’s relocated from Japan to Dubai because he believes it’s emerging as a key global crossroads.

What a corporation does to enhance chances of serendipity will directly affect their chances of market success, Hagel argues. Creating online spaces that allow your customers and developers to interact, as SAP has done, can help create unexpected encounters. Unlikely online spaces like World of Warcraft can also be great spaces for serendipity, because the guild structure allows for the development of deep, trust-based relationships.

Hagel warns that you can go into these environments and not make connections. You need to learn how to rise above the noise in these spaces and attract attention so that the people you need to find will find you. He suggests that succesful actors find ways to influence conversations without direct contacts – they attract attention and sustain it, which allows connections to form when appropriate for all involved.

This, in turn, requires preparedness. He suggests that people either are disposed to finding encounters to be threatening and distracting, or to embrace and enjoy them. Hagel suggests that this probably isn’t a choice – it’s a perspective people bring to business. But if there is a way to cultivate connections that lead to serendipity is to develop passion around what you’re doing.


I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about serendipity over the past year (see here and here) and was intrigued to see how differently Hagel and I are using the term. A questioner in the audience observed that Hagel’s examples all involved finding serendipity by connecting with people, rather than encountering things or information. I’d suggest that Hagel’s examples almost all deal with creating a wider set of weak ties. Hagel explains that he believes this is the most efficient form of creating serendipity – by building new connections, you gain a source of serendipity over a long period of time.

Here’s my concern: building weak ties is great, important and helpful. We know that weak ties are incredibly useful in finding jobs, or in seeking out information within a large and complex company. But if our weak ties are largely to people we’ve got substantial common ground with – and they usually are – are these people really a source of surprise? When I get recommendations from my social circles – via Facebook or Twitter, for instance – there tends to be a lot of overlap in those recommendations. That makes sense – like everyone else, I fall into homophily traps and I flock with likeminded folks. But this means that my weak ties aren’t always the best place to find ideas that surprise and delight me, to use Hagel’s definition. Unexpected, perhaps, but I’m not sure serendipity is the right term to describe these connections.

I’m interested in questions of how we stumble onto information and ideas we’d be unlikely to find within our present sphere of weak ties. One possibility is to radically expand that circle of weak ties – start paying attention to the perspectives and opinions of people far outside our realms of ordinary experience. This isn’t easy to do – it tends to require the assistance of bridge figures, who’ve got connections to our circles and to very different circles. I also wonder whether serendipity always needs to focus on personal connection – I think we often get serendipity from media, from pop culture, from news.

All that said, I like Hagel’s idea that we can change environments to increase serendipity. I’m not sure the strategy of advertising our interests is the most important step, though it’s certainly worked for me in some ways – blog on a topic and you’re bound to find people more knowledgeable on the subject who will correct and steer you. But I’m very glad that such a prominent thinker is looking at the challenge of increasing serendipity, opening the possibility that serendipity isn’t just luck, but something we can analyse, understand and get better at.

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5 Responses to John Hagel on serendipity

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  3. Thomas Lawrence says:

    Hi Ethan, good article. You’re right about weak ties often being to people with similar interests and hence the surprise content of what they link to being low. However, there’s a lot of value in recommendations by the weak ties OF your weak ties, and so on…

    It’s Six Degrees of Serndipity. Maybe I’d never have been interested in, say, motorcycle maintainance on my own, and none of the people on my RSS reader or in my Twitter feed are either since they all have similar interests to me. But just possibly, one of my weak ties might have his own weak ties to a motorcycle gearhead….

    This is why linkblogging is such a critical web activity. A chain of links can take you almost anywhere, on the web; and provided I can trust each link in the chain to direct me somewhere interesting, I will always end up somewhere interesting.

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