Serendipity – the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for. Merriam-Webster
- The Rayback Collective is a food truck park and bar in Boulder, Colorado that uses intentionally designed layouts to help people connect with each other and participate in shared experiences.
- The coffeehouse contributed to the Age of Enlightenment simply by being a place where people would gather and have conversations around a wide variety of ideas and interests.
- Cut fruit being available for folks to have in the break room kept people coming together more often during their breaks than whole fruits did. With people taking breaks together, they interacted and conversed more in a casually productive manner.
Each of these examples showcases what Steven Johnson refers to as a “liquid network” in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. In short, ideas need spaces to collide with other ideas in order to mature and grow. Those spaces, and they need not be physical spaces, need to have some structure to them. In Johnson’s book, he uses the states of matter to help illustrate his point. Solids are too rigid in their atomic structure, making collisions impossible. Gases are too loose and chaotic in their atomic structure, making collisions infrequent and rare. Liquids have just the right balance of rigidity and looseness in their structures, which optimizes the number of collisions.
But once you’ve created the conditions for a liquid network to exist, you need to take advantage of it. How to do that is a great question. One way Johnson proposes to do that is via serendipity.
Serendipity is the recognition component that makes the fertile garden of the liquid network system bear fruit. In a grand sense, serendipity is an aspect of the Association skill that Clayton Christensen lists as a key trait for innovators to possess in his book, The Innovator’s DNA. More poetically, I’ve read that serendipity is “seeing bridges where others see holes.”
The two concepts work together. The liquid network increases the number of collisions that people and their ideas can have, but serendipity is the person’s realization of the collision and their resulting action to grasp the newly found opportunity.
The last part is key in my opinion. You need to do something with the discovery that you weren’t even searching for.
But that’s the rub. How do you get people to take advantage of things they weren’t looking for? It really is an oxymoronic blog post title, right? :-)
However, it certainly isn’t a far-fetched idea that I’m wondering about. The three anecdotes at the start of this post are examples of it being done already, with measurable success. My specific interest is in doing this in schools though – with faculty and and administrative educators to drill down even further.
I’m gambling that by creating school-based systems that helps educators share ideas casually, and pursue opportunities that result from the collisions those ideas have, they’ll begin to recognize themselves as innovative because they’ll actually be engaging in innovation. And once the teachers know what it means to be innovative, they can actively nurture it within their students and classrooms.
So my experiment begins with questions, as all good wonderings – scientific or not – should…
- HMW increase the number of idea collisions in a school?
- HMW leverage dissonant details in the school to create micro/macro level liquid networks?
- HMW improve teachers recognition of the benefits of idea collisions in their own practices?
- HMW identify and overcome obstacles to teachers pursuing opportunities?
My own initial hypotheses revolve around how I view this as a two-step approach. The first three bullets have more to do with establishing liquid network conditions, while the last one is a question that many thought leaders and schools have tackled many times before; it hints at both school cultures and teacher philosophies. I’m wondering how establishing the first question set, while emphasizing the cultural/community positives nuanced in the third question, make the approach to the final question different that the approaches that others have taken before. I’m also wondering what role protocols like School Retool’s Levers for Change (PDF) can play in charting a route forward.
And who knows… while traveling along this route forward, we might just stumble upon something we didn’t even know we should be looking for.
Images in this post, but not shown in the Image Credits section, are my own.