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  • Lou Killeffer

The Role of Serendipity in Innovation

An "Innovation Conversation" with Matt Kingdon, Founder & Chairman, ?What If!

Matt Kingdon co-founded ?What If! with Dave Allan in 1992 and has led the company through both rapid growth and the unprecedented honor of winning the Financial Times ‘Best Company to Work For’ in Europe award not just once but twice (2005 & 2006).

A self-proclaimed “enthusiast” Matt works with senior client leaders who’re similarly enthused with innovation but often stuck as to how to make it happen. In the off moment he’s not relentlessly engaged with his clients Matt’s out banging the drum for innovation. He’s the co-author of the best-selling Sticky Wisdom and contributes regularly to his own blog, Innovation at Work. Most recently, Matt published The Science of Serendipity: How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation in Large Organizations in November 2012. And when he’s not writing or serving his clients, Matt he frequently keynotes conferences providing a unique perspective on the “bear traps” awaiting organizations as they transform from sleepy giant to nimble innovator.

Before ?What If! Matt worked with Unilever, marketing their broad brand portfolio, first in the UK and then across South East Asia and the Middle East. He lives in London with his family. His hobby is having cartilage removed from his knees following marathons he shouldn’t have run.

Matt’s passionate about innovation, growth, and the serendipitous outcomes from the collision of observations and insights he sees as fundamental to success. And he’s outspoken about the very human dynamics he sees driving both the people and the process. Matt believes virtually all innovation is powered by “anger, paranoia, or ambition”; powered across a rather rugged journey that begins, in large corporations at least, when someone stands up and simply says something must change; something must be done.

I spoke to Matt at ?What If! London by phone from ?What If’s! newly renovated offices at 137 Second Avenue in downtown Manhattan.

Lou Killeffer: Hello Matt…

Matt Kingdon: Hey Lou, how are you?

LK: Wonderful and enjoying the gracious hospitality of your New York office.

MK: I’m envious because I love that office.

LK: Well, you should come over and visit sometime.

MK: (Laughs) I do often. It’s been an off week.

LK: Matt, I believe I hold in my hands the only copy in North America of your new book, The Science of Serendipity. ( The Science of Serendipity: How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation in large Organizations: John Wiley & Sons. Ed.)

MK: Hey. (Laughs) Don’t get mugged on the way out. That’s a valuable copy.

LK: Well, congratulations and let’s start there. Why write a book about innovation today? As you know, there’s a tsunami of words and whitepapers, articles and videos on innovation. Why write yet another book?

MK: Well, I guess the answer is I think this book is different. It’s a very practical book. Based on twenty years of experience in growing a business of over 250 people now and I think that’s at least part of its difference with the tsunami of material as you rightly call it. There are a lot of books out there but when you take a look at them, a lot are quite theoretical. I wanted to write something very practical, very useful. I wanted to write something that was easier to read than the average business book, which as you well know, rarely gets read completely from end to end. I wanted to write a business book from the heart about what I know really works. So I guess that’s my reason.

LK: I must say I admire your ambition and I think you’ve succeeded. And the book begins for me with my very favorite quote of all time, Pasteur saying chance favors the prepared mind. Why did you select that quote?

MK: Well, when Pasteur said that, the full quote is actually, “In the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind,” I think he was saying that the more homework we do, the more we’ll see, the luckier we’ll get. It’s a bit like that quote attributed to quite a lot of people, but Gary Player mainly. “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

LK: Yes, indeed.

MK: And I think that’s a wonderful, hopeful, optimistic way of looking at how folks in large organizations can get things done, and almost do the impossible. That is if they keep themselves open to an external perspective, if they keep debating in a really honest, open way with their colleagues, experimenting and trying things out, and if they keep putting themselves through that kind of distance, homework, and outreach, then they’ll almost inevitably find themselves to be luckier or more serendipitously successful, if you will.

LK: Right. You’ve another quote, new to me, that’s now my second favorite after Pasteur. “Serendipity is looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter.” Matt, that’s tremendous.

MK: (Laughs) Yes, isn’t that perfect? I agree.

LK: In Chapter One, The Protagonist, you say, “All innovation is powered by anger, paranoia or ambition.” What a provocative place to begin. What exactly do you mean?

MK: I think people would like to think that all innovation is powered by strategy, clear thinking, and high principles, but I think it’s a much more rugged, human activity than that…If you think about how hard innovation is, in the sense of how hard it is to really make something happen in a large organization, you have to be powered by some kind of kryptonite to drive you forward. And you’ll find the people who really make things happen in large organizations are the people driven by some sense of injustice in the world, who feels something isn’t right – it may be a customer group isn’t being served properly, it may be your brand isn’t getting the share it deserves, it may be your career could be going further and faster. It’s the kind of thing that eats away at people some of whom make a decision to stand up and do something about it. My belief is that there’s an element of dissatisfaction with the way the world is in all real innovation and we shouldn’t shy away from that or be embarrassed about it. I’m not suggesting that people who innovate are necessarily grumpy but I do think they have a degree of irreverence for the organization that they’re in and a degree of dissatisfaction with the way the world is…

LK: Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted?

MK: Yeah, something like that.

LK: It’s an interesting place to begin your book because you’re speaking about fundamentally human and quite emotional drivers. You’re saying innovation’s not simply an intellectual exercise, right?

MK: Well, I’m not saying innovation is unthinking and I’m not saying that innovation doesn’t benefit from good analysis. But yes, I am saying that innovation can be damaged by too many people spending too much time simply talking or that an organization with too much money and too many resources may tend to do too much research. Look, what I’ve found is invariably true: when you dig underneath the skin of why something was innovative, what people will generally tell you was there was a certain critical moment where they took the decision to work harder, to reach out to a different set of colleagues, to push something harder with their colleagues, and these moments are normally a combination of a certain kind of courageous or collaborative behavior. And you’ll find that the heart of so much innovation is a very human story which I think is uplifting.

I think it says to all of us that everybody can innovate. It’s just a question of making things simple, having the right attitude, having the right behaviors with the group of people that you work with. That’s the core message of the book.

LK: As you discuss behavior with the people that you’re interacting with, you say, “Innovators are team workers, but more than that, they are collaborators.” What is the distinction between a team worker and a collaborator?

MK: Well, imagine a sports team, let’s say a soccer team and they’ve won a match and they’re congratulating each other, slapping each other on the back. You know, they may say that it was great teamwork that helped them win, but it’s rather unlikely they’ll say it was great collaboration that did it. That would sound kind of weird. When you think about it, the nature of teamwork is fundamentally different from collaboration and this is a very, very important point for innovators to get a hold of.

LK: Right.

MK: So a team plays a game where there are clear boundaries. There are the confines of the pitch. The referee or the umpire who sets the rules. It’s clear how you win. There are certain positions to play and you come and play to your best ability within that position. So teams play with roles and rules. That’s what defines team sports.

But when it comes to collaboration, which I believe is a better model for innovation, certainly more disruptive innovation, collaborators work completely differently. They don’t know who they’re going to be working with along the line. They’re not entirely sure of their position. They’re sort of trying it out. There’s certainly no umpire or referee. And what’s victory? No one’s quite sure what victory looks like or where they’re going. They’re experimenting with things and collaboration, essentially, has outreach, it has iteration, it has experimentation, it has a degree of self awareness and a degree of humility attached to it, which is not necessarily the same as teamwork.

LK: I take your point. Your analogy of the football pitch, the forwards and the backs have individual responsibilities which, if they succeed against, the team will succeed, but in a corporate environment, one could say the forwards and the backs are in silos, by definition. In collaboration, you invade the other person’s silo, isn’t that right?

MK: Well, you may still work in a silo, but yes, you’ve got a broader perspective. I mean, many people work in siloed organizations and very often, it’s a matter of choice, whether you decide to restrict your point of view to within your silo or you’re prepared to get out of the office, meet with new colleagues, meet some customers and really develop a shared obsession with what your customers’ want. So, yes, generally, such an approach is a silo-busting weapon.

LK: Right.

MK: As is having a real customer obsession. It means getting interested in something other than just your company or your brand. And that often means working with some colleagues from the finance team or the research and development team or the sales team, someone that you’ve bonded with around a singular goal rather than just working in your silos.

LK: In the second chapter you say, “Innovation is fueled by new insight, a deep understanding of why people do what they do.” Why is that so important?

MK: Well, because it’s why they choose what they choose, why they reject what they reject, why they engage in a commentary or dialogue about a brand or product and it’s important because like it or not, many people are a bit disconnected from why they do particular things. They’ve never really thought about it very deeply. When you ask them why do you buy this brand or product, very often, they either don’t really know or they may just tell you what they think you want to hear. So one of the core skills of an innovator is to get under the skin of why people do what they do and really understand some of those locked-in feelings and desires.

One of the big differences between doing this kind of activity as an innovator rather than simply a researcher, which is a well-understood, well-trodden path, is as an innovator, you’re constantly thinking about the outcome. In fact, you’re outcome obsessed because innovation is entirely defined by outcomes, by something happening.

LK: Yes.

MK: So innovators are interested in insights, but only insofar as they can stimulate an idea or activity which can go on and be brought to market and deliver value. So the search for insights, why people do what they do, is particularly exciting as an innovator. It’s not an academic exercise, it’s a very practical exercise.

LK: You go on to say that these insights are created by the serendipitous collision of provocative observations. I’d like you to speak to that, but I want to back up for just a moment and touch on the definition of serendipity in the book. It’s spectacular and very appropriate. How did you arrive at Serendipity as the title of the work?

MK: (Laughs) Well, I don’t know what you think, but I’ve always enjoyed that word. It’s a beautiful word, isn’t it? It’s just such a nice word to say and it’s so very mellifluous.

LK: It is mellifluous, yes.

MK: A mellifluous word, but that’s obviously not the reason I chose it. I simply decided to investigate what serendipity really meant and it took me on quite a journey…There’s actually quite a lot of controversy around the word and what it means and there are basically two accounts. One account says serendipity is about happy accidents and the other account says it’s about the discovery of things by chance, but not totally by chance because you’ve tried so many things, you’ve kissed so many frogs, that you were bound to end up discovering something in the end. So there’s an element of hard work behind this seemingly lucky concept and it seems to me that this fits the reality of the innovator’s journey perfectly. You know I’ve never worked on an innovation project in twenty years – and by now we’ve addressed over 10,000 innovation projects in the company – I’ve never worked on a project which has ended up exactly where anyone predicted it would.

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