Serendipity and Innovation at SXSW
Colleen Burns 120000C4RP firstname.lastname@example.org | | Tags:  rawn_shah social_business sxsw serendipity sxswibm jennifer_okimoto
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Serendipity and Innovation at SXSW
by Rawn Shah, Social Media Strategist
On Tuesday I led panel with several influencers and thought leaders to discuss a topic that is becoming increasingly relevant to organizations today: “Get Lucky: Create Serendipity to Spur Innovation”. My fellow panelists were Jennifer Okimoto (Associate Partner, IBM GBS S&T Center of Competence for Social Business ), Duleesha Kulasooriya (Research Director, Deloitte Center for the Edge), Jim Storer (Co-founder, The Community Roundtable), and Bill Johnston (Global Head of Community, Dell), all of whom I have also met serendipitously over the years.
I started by saying how serendipity – the accidental discovery of unexpected value – has played a key role in recorded human history: Sir Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin when he left a bacterial culture unattended overnight; Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of capturing X-rays; even the discovery by Bell Labs of the sound of the universe, that continuing hum from the Big Bang that permeates all around us, while trying to build satellite communications. It has saved millions of lives, helped us in so many aspects of our everyday lives, and even changed our understanding of the universe we exist in.
Beyond the scientific real, what we really focused on were practical examples that organizations could do in a repeatable and reusable fashion to encourage innovation. This is more than a discussion on serendipity or fortitude by itself, but rather in the context of how can it apply to improve how we ourselves or our organizations can improve.
Jennifer Okimoto spoke on the background of how “creativity has been pounded out of us” in a drive towards growth, scale and process. We need to get back to learning how to do so, and to do that we need some facilitation, some inspiration from others on becoming more empathic towards others.
Duleesha retold a story from John Seely-Brown, one-time Director of the legendary Xerox Palto Alto Research Center, who spoke of when Apple founder, Steve Jobs visited. Everyone remembers the story of the innovations that led to the Macintosh and other big changes in technology, but people forget the bathrooms.
According to this story, later when Mr. Jobs was at Pixar, he specifically designed the building space to put the cafeteria and the bathrooms in the center of the building, and involve a circuitous path that had employees moving past many of their peers’ desks to get there. Inconvenient, but what it did was to encourage serendipity and sharing of ideas as people stopped to chat with each other along their way back to their own desks. This physical building design encouraged serendipity to occur and by nature of their jobs, also encouraged people to discuss ideas.
Jim Storer spoke how community managers can help to create collisions between people both in online and in the physical world as well. Part of the mission of community managers is to try to bring people together directly, look at the community from a higher level, notice similarities and make introductions. They are the human nexus that helps bring the network together. Community managers for external sites may sometimes be under-represented at the executive table, but frequently have the deep insight into what customers say and feel.
Bill Johnston described how IdeaStorm at Dell has helped employees offer and discover many new opportunities for projects to work on. But more so, these ideation systems have two other purposes: as a means for employees to experience a shared culture, as well as to teach what the common culture of collaboration really is in the organization. Social systems help to define and share organizational cultural values on the micro-scale of ‘what to do when’ certain collaborative scenarios appear.
I asked a question: Is technology a requirement for serendipity? Looking back at the earlier scientific examples, at all the social tools, and at search engines all around, you might think so. Jim said that it is not a requirement but it certainly can facilitate it. Bill described success and serendipity in online communities as “10% platform, 90% people & programs.”
We had a great question on how technology is certainly encouraging serendipity and making it easier to discover new ideas, but what happens when you’re ‘serendipped out’? As you can see from the Tweets, we need our quiet time to mull over the ideas and consider different alternatives, where there aren’t too many attention-demanding events continuously, or you are fresh from sufficient rest.
Finally, two other projects that described serendipity in action were very much in theme with SXSW. Jim Storer described February Album Writing Month (fawm.org) project, an experiment in creativity in an open communal effort to get 14 songs written in 30 days, opening the collective intelligence of many songwriters. The Johnny Cash Project is another such example, combining the music video of the late music legend, with the individual skills of amateurs and professional artists all over. You can play the video at the site to see the results: anyone could take an individual frames from the video and edit it into their own painting, and the collective result of all the frames produces and entirely new experience.
I described (and later sang a little as we had technical difficulties) how the project inspired serendipity in several ways: discovering the artists behind individually painted frames, and discovering the producers who selected and combined all the frames together into new music videos.
These and other collective intelligence models (e.g. the Dell IdeaStorm virtual ideation platform described earlier) are inherently engines for serendipity. [If you’re interested in understanding these models, take a look at the recent IBM Institute for Business Value paper on the topic.]