Can We Improve Our Chance for Innovation through Serendipity?

Last Friday I listened to episode #847 of the podcast Planet Money called Inventing Accidents.  In the episode, the hosts explain that many inventions come from accidental discoveries not a deliberate attempt to invent something new.  Near the end of the episode interview Pagan Kennedy, author of the book Inventology, who makes the case that serendipity (discoveries by chance) is a skill and we should be working to understand how it works so we can get better at it. 

Kennedy wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times in 2016 that asks whether some people have a special talent for serendipity.  Kennedy wants to know whether we can “cultivate the art of finding what we’re not seeking”.  Kennedy describes one scientist, Sanda Erdelez, who studied how people create serendipity and found that people fall into one of three broad categories: (1) they stick to their topic area (e.g. they focus solely on education if that is their subject), (2) they occasionally wander outside their field (e.g. sometimes they look outside education for answers), and (3) super-encounterers who are outside their primary field all the time and they see serendipity everywhere  It is the super-encounterers who position themselves to see opportunities to innovate or improve.  The super-encounterers are honing their observational skills to see patterns that others don’t see.  Consequently, they are coming up with more ideas and identifying more opportunities to improve systems, processes, and outcomes. 

How might we apply these ideas to our work in education?  As we engage in improvement work or innovation in our classrooms or schools, we should begin by honing our observational skills to be prepared for serendipity.  We should look for clues inside of education and in fields far from our work.  We should be open to the weird and interesting places that inspire us or spark ideas.  We should be willing to examine unexpected avenues and weird ideas.   

When I engage teachers and students in the innovation process I have them fill out an Inspiration Grid.  The purpose of this exercise is to get innovators to think deliberately about what they want to read and watch, where they want to visit, and who they want to talk to.  Most people start by identifying inspiration that is closely tied to the specific conditions of their problem.  For example, teachers tend to read books and articles written by teachers about teaching, talk to other teachers, and visit other schools.  This is appropriate and makes sense.  However, as we proceed through any problem-solving process innovators should continue to explore news ideas press outside their niche.   

Innovators should have a way to record new ideas as they come to them.  I use a small notebook that I carry in my bag.  I scribble down anything I find inspiring or interesting.  It might be an article in an education journal about the effectiveness of an intervention.  Or it might be a story about the way data are used to track forest fires or how healthcare systems have applied Lean principles.  I want to make sure I capture things that catch my attention and note what inspires me or how we might apply the ideas in education.  The vast majority of what I write down never leaves my notebook, but I believe the practice of constantly observing is honing my observational skills so I am ready to take advantage of a serendipity. 

Download my Inspiration Grid worksheet