Building a culture of serendipity

Aug 22, 2022

We’ve talked a great in this space about how remote work can sap teams of their natural spaces for informal communication. And without informal communication, a sense of loneliness and isolation can set in, causing teams to drift apart and teammates to burnout.

Burnout has a huge organizational cost. It’s something teams should go to nearly any length to avoid. But the role of informal communication isn’t just preventative. There’s a positive case too.

We typically think of serendipity as luck or chance. The apple landing on Newton’s head. But serendipity is an incredible source of innovation. Serendipity brought us penicillin, Post-it notes, velcro, Aspirin, the smallpox vaccine, and countless other fixtures of modern life.

Research has shown that serendipity isn’t luck; it’s a practice, a culture that can be fostered. Serendipity is the ability to combine events or observations in meaningful ways, to see meaningful opportunities where others can’t. It explains why some organizations are “luckier” than others. And informal communication is the fuel for serendipity in an organization.

So how can a team be more serendipitous? Nancy K. Napier and Quan Hoang Vuong wrote about teams leveraging serendipity for strategic advantage: “by far, the most important aspect … is organizational culture.” They conducted a deep review of research and found that teams that were especially serendipitous emphasized four key values:

Encourage cross-pollination. Opportunities for serendipitous breakthroughs often come from “exploring the ‘periphery’ of some field” through unexpected information. This requires both formal infrastructure (helping surface information through formal searches) and cultural infrastructure (helping people from diverse teams and hierarchical levels come together). The more your culture encourages conversation between people who don’t work together everyday, the more opportunity there is for serendipitous innovation.

Build a culture of trust. We’re big on trust at Frond. Why? We believe that serendipitous opportunities are more likely to be found and acted on when people feel comfortable taking risks, don’t fear blame for an idea not panning out, and are encouraged to openly discuss ideas. We have a whole post about fostering trust in remote teams here.

Embrace inefficiency. This is a tough one for many leaders, who are taught to optimize for productivity as a linear variable. In fact, literature suggests that cultures that grant teammates autonomy to experiment, create flexible structures that can accommodate shifting opportunity spaces, and tolerate a “controlled sloppiness” generate more serendipitous innovation.

Celebrate serendipity. Researchers found that in order for teammates to act on serendipitous opportunities, it “has to be perceived as relevant and important for that organization.” Leaders who build cultures that recognize and celebrate the value of serendipity are more successful. The more you tell stories of serendipitous successes, the easier it is to develop (and hire for) a “serendipity disposition.”

At Frond we believe that focus on culture is key to great remote teams, and that the tools we use shape our cultures. Our tools should help teams shape culture and build community. We’re working on it. Follow us on Twitter to keep up with the latest!

The Frond Team