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Kim Dong-Chul

From Chance to Success, Serendipity

Kim Dong-Chul

Nov. 14, 2013

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Serendipity. It’s a “happy accident.” Supposedly, 18th century writer Horace Walpole introduced the word. Since then serendipity has become associated with a host of inventions and discoveries, including penicillin, dynamite and the law of gravity. More recently, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerburg described his company as the embodiment of serendipity, with people having random encounters and making surprising discoveries.

Today’s fast-changing business environment has spawned unexpected, successful ideas at a rising number of companies. There is, of course, a strong element of chance behind many worthy ideas but what makes one a serendipitous, transformational moment is largely the province of companies that have fostered a corporate culture for them.

Three conditions are needed to allow “Ah hah!” flashes of discovery. First, employees need to be given time to break away from the everyday humdrum to gather their thoughts. Companies have to stop treating creativity and new ideas like a light switch that employees can turn off and off while they complete daily tasks. They should provide their employees with the freedom and autonomy to find and enjoy other activities.

For example, at W.L. Gore & Associates, the maker of Gore-Tex fabric, employees are allowed “dabble time” – they do what they please 10 percent of their work time. The company knows full well what serendipity can bring. In 1969, Robert W. Gore, son of founder Wilbert Lee Gore, yanked heated material out of frustration and discovered that a micro-porous structure formed. It became the basis of the company’s eponymous material used in clothing worldwide. This unstructured time also has led to discoveries outside the company’s specialties such as a medical service researcher and his guitar-loving cohort accidentally discovering a guitar string that lasts three times longer. Gore, which does not have a conventional hierarchy, has more than 2,000 patents worldwide and has a regular spot on Fortune magazine’s annual list of best companies to work for.

Such brief interludes from daily tasks or a work site are regularly cited by accomplished people in all fields. For example, faced with a particularly difficult mathematical question, French mathematician and theoretical physicist Jules Henri Poincaré would take frequent walks, saying that it was the best tool for creative ideas.

Secondly, chance communication between employees must be increased. Communication and cooperation between organization members are closely connected to distance and space. Companies need to provide an open area where employees can gather, interact and recharge spontaneously, as well as various attractions to pull them together such as an exhibit.  Google believes that innovative items are borne from employees’ everyday conversations and has designed its office space so that an employee can encounter a cohort within a few minutes. Specifically, data, including walking speed and spacing measured from numerous angles were analyzed and reflected in the office design. More examples include Pixar, who has located all convenience facilities such as the cafeteria, café and meeting rooms in the center hall to encourage more chance communication between employees.

Finally, it is important to connect discovery with action. Companies must realize discoveries can come from any employee, regardless of job titles, and allow ample room for follow-up action. In short, they must create a culture that allows for trial and errors and accepts it as steps to capturing decisive opportunities from random occurrences.

It can be said that fortune that comes from countless attempts and action is an inevitability rather than chance. Artist, Pablo Picasso created over 10,000 pieces of art in oil painting, engraving and illustration, and the world famous Angry Birds game, which has been downloaded a staggering 700 million times, was the result of 52 trials during an eight- year development stage. Now it has gone beyond the realm of the gaming world, inspiring the sale of two million T-shirts, backpacks and stuffed toys a month.

When asked how Google became such a success, co-founder Sergey Brin answered that the first factor was luck. With the business environment rapidly changing, companies are putting much more effort so as to link chance with success. Those that think serendipity will help realize their ambitions not only are providing free time to employees, they are encouraging them to attend events and gatherings on topics they previously had little interest in, to widen their perspective. 

The elements for fostering serendipity, of course, may seem alien to some Korean companies that adhere to a more traditional top-down management and a work-oriented atmosphere. But they also realize that they are in a business environment that puts a premium on innovation more and more, as echoed by the government’s push for a “creative economy.” Creating the proper internal environment can lead to serendipitous moments that can change their fate and lead to new products and services that can better diversify Korea’s economy.

The column originally appeared in JoongAng Daily

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