On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Dr. Christian Busch, author of the new book, The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Good Luck. Christian and I talk about how you can expand your surface area of luck and flex your serendipity muscles, both as an individual and an organization. Let’s get started.
Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast that brings you the best and the brightest in the world of startups and innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, founder of insideoutside.io, a provider of research events and consulting services that help innovators and entrepreneurs build better products, launch new ideas, and compete in a world of change and disruption each week. We’ll give you a front row seat to the latest thinking, tools, tactics, and trends in collaborative innovation. Let’s get started.
Interview Transcript with Christian Busch
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Dr. Christian Busch. He is the author of the new book, The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Good Luck.
Brian Ardinger: Christian, I am so excited to have you on the show for a number of different reasons. We can get into the details in a minute, but to give our audience a little bit of background about who you are and that. You teach entrepreneurship innovation and leadership at New York University and the London School of Economics; you direct the Center for Global Affairs and Global Economy Program. I think you’ve co-directed the London School of Economics Innovation and Co-creation Lab, and you’ve been in this space of innovation and entrepreneurship for a while.
So, I’m excited to have you on board. And I think I’ll start off by talking about how we actually met. You have a book out called The Serendipity Mindset and you have a new article that just came out in Harvard Business Review about how do you create your own career luck? And I was fascinated. I was reading through the article. I said, Oh, this is a perfect person to talk to, to have on the show and talk about this idea of how do you create luck? You know, we talk about invention and creation of new innovations and that. And so many times you hear people talk about, well, it was just luck. And so, I want to get your take on what got you interested in researching and studying the art and science of good luck.
Christian Busch: Yeah, that’s a great question because I’ve had an experience early on in life, a car crash that made me realize how quickly life can be over. And so, its instilled kind of urgency and search for meaning. And, you know, I started reading this Victor Frankel book around man’s search for meaning and really dove deep into what is meaningful to me. I realized that what I enjoy the most is connecting people, connecting ideas, seeing how dots connect. And so, over the last years I’ve been part of building communities, companies, and then doing a lot of research on what makes companies successful, not successful. What makes individuals successful purpose-driven or not successful, purpose-driven.
And one of the things that I found fascinating is when I looked at that kind of whole spectrum, the most joyful, you know, successful people seem to have something in common, which was that they all somehow intuitively cultivated serendipity. They intuitively saw something the unexpected, whenever it happens, they connect dots. They somehow create their own smart luck. And you know, these kinds of people where people around them would say, well, they’re just a bit luckier than others. Since I got really fascinated by this question. And I delve deeper into the signs of it, but also then inspiring stories and try to identify what is the science base pattern behind this and how can we make it happen by exercises and other things.
Brian Ardinger: So how would you define the difference between blind luck versus smart luck?
Christian Busch: Yeah, it’s really, I mean, if you look at the blind, like this kind of being born into a loving family, or, you know, things that just happen to you without you doing anything versus the kind of smart luck, which is really the active luck, which is about saying it’s not just something that happens to us, but it’s a process of seeing something and doing something with it.
So for example, you know, picture this quintessential situation of you’re in a coffee shop. And if you have erratic hand movements, as I do, you might spill a coffee more often than not. And you know, you spill that coffee. And there’s this person next to you and you sense, there’s a kind of connection, you know, you just feel, Oh, this could be interesting. And you know, you now have two options, right? Option number one is, you’re just saying, I’m so sorry. Here’s a napkin. And that’s it. You leave it at that option. Option number two is you strike a conversation. You see some potential overlaps and it might grow into a potential love relationship or become a cofounder, whatever it is.
And then obviously this really bad feeling when you had option number one happen. You walk outside, you’re like, ah, I should have talked with this person. Right. And so that is serendipity missed, and that is smart luck missed. So, what we’re seeing here is that it’s really about what is our proactive decision that we make in the moment when the serendipitous or when that kind of unexpectedness happens. And so, in a way, serendipity is all about making accidents more meaningful, but also making more meaningful accidents happen.
I think in the business context, I guess you have a lot of people also who are running businesses in the audience. And so, one of my favorite examples is a company in China. They produce washing machines and other white goods. And, you know, they had farmers call them up and saying, Hey, look. We’re trying to wash our potatoes and it always breaks down this machine whenever we try to wash out potatoes and what would we usually do when something unexpected like this happens, we would say, well, look, this is a washing machine for clothes. Don’t wash your potatoes in the washing machine. Right.
But you know, they did the opposite. They said, you know what? This is unexpected, but there’s a lot of farmers in China who might have the same problem, but actually they want to have their potatoes washed. So, they added the dirt filter and made it a potato washing machine. The point here is that when they look back now, they’re Oh, it was just lucky that we learned from farmers X, Y, Z. Yeah, but you work for it. You did something about it. You saw something in the unexpected. And that’s the same with everything from Viagra to how we met the love of our lives, all these different things. They were practice decisions rather than just happening to us. We had to do something about it.
Brian Ardinger: Let’s talk a little bit about that. In the article that you wrote in Harvard Business Review, you talk a little bit about how you can expand that surface area of luck. And you talk about specific practices that people can do as far as one of them being setting hooks. So maybe let’s talk a little bit about what does it mean to set a hook for serendipity.
Christian Busch: Yeah, that’s one of my favorites. So essentially, it’s something that I’ve learned from entrepreneurial Ali Barrett, who’s a wonderful education entrepreneur in London. And so, you know this dreaded question, what do you do, that we always get asked and we might ask it ourselves. We might usually just answer something like, Oh, I’m in education or I’m X, Y, Z entrepreneur, whatever. But what he does is he says, okay, you asked me this question. I will give you hooks. He would say something like, okay, I’m in education. But I recently started reading into the philosophy of science, but what I’m really excited about is playing the piano.
So, what he does is here, he gives you three potential hooks where you could be like, Oh my God, such a coincidence. I just started hosting piano matinees, come to our next one. Whatever it is, in a way, he is seeding potential dots that the other person could connect for him. And so, the point really is that a lot of times serendipity happens because another person connects the dots for us, and we need to give them the opportunity to do that.
To your point, we need to increase that potential surface area that has all these potential dots that could be connected. And so, by setting hooks, that’s one way, the other way around also, you can do the same, right? In the way you ask questions, like instead of asking, what do you do? It could be more questions around, you know, what was interesting for you during this presentation or whatever it is that is more about the motivation of the other person that tells us more about the interests of the other person that we could then really connect with.
Brian Ardinger: That’s an interesting point because you know, one of the things we’re trying to do with our IO Summit, we’re having to move to virtual environment and we’re very much actively trying to figure out how do we engage audiences in a virtual world and change it from just a typical Zoom webinar. And how do you create those ability to engage and connect in that.
We’re looking at technology platforms, we’re looking at different ways to prime the audience, like you said, providing them prompts to help the audience engage with each other, engage with the speakers as well. And I’m excited to announce that you’re going to be actually coming to IO2020 and speaking as well about your book and some of these topics too. So, I encourage people to go to IO2020.Live, to grab a ticket and register, and we can continue the discussion on that.
The other area you talked about in the article, not only setting hooks, but planting bombs, being that different ways to connect those particular dots and make them more impactful and taking action on that. Can you unpack that a little bit?
Christian Busch: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s really a lot about the question of how do we essentially put out stuff there that other people could pick up on in some way or the other. One way for example, you know, I deal a lot moment with students who had their careers fall through. Everything was laid out in a way and now everything’s going down the drain. And so, the question is how do you still put yourself on the radar? How do you still make sure that there’s something out there that you develop a minefield for the lack of a better word? Where essentially in a way there’s something there that you’re putting out there.
And so, one way that I’ve seen work pretty well, especially with young professionals is to send more speculative emails to people we admire. For example, the LinkedIn has the email function where. You essentially can send a message to every second-degree contact, which is essentially it’s millions of people, if you have a couple of contacts. And so it’s this idea of saying, Hey, look like if I put myself on the radar by maybe observing what they’ve been doing, telling them, Hey, look, I’ve been super inspired by you, would love your advice at some point. Whatever it is, just something that in a way, puts yourself on the radar of that person in a non-pitchy way.
And what it does is when you do that with like 10, 20 people, one of them usually goes back and says, my God, such a coincidence. I’ve just been looking for someone who could work with me on X, Y, Z. So, the thing is we can’t know that from just following the Twitter or Facebook, like what they really are thinking about at the moment. Right. We can and see their themes, but that’s it. But if we’re putting a bit out there, we can actually have something there. And I think there’s a lot of ways and variations of this.
I’ve been particularly interested in the question of. How do we also do that in contexts where we might not have the networks yet where we, in a way have to put ourselves out there without any big networks. One of the things I’ve been doing is I’ve been working with kids from tough backgrounds, you know, who come out of prison or other kind of really tough settings, where in a way, you don’t have a lot to “show” at that point. And so, the idea there is, yeah, you don’t have a big network, but you know what? You can still put out a lot of potential bombs there.
So for example, one practice is to say, if there’s a big event, like let’s say there’s a public events, virtual or offline at a big university, where you have an inspiring speaker come in and CEO, whatever and essentially you are the one who’s asking the first question. Like if it’s an offline event, you energetically stand up so that they can’t ignore you. If it’s an online event, you try to sneak in a couple of questions and just put like a couple of questions in, so again they can’t ignore you. And then the way you asked the question is to say, Thank you so much for this inspiring speech.
You make it all about the speaker. It’s not about you. It’s about the speaker. So, thank you so much. As someone who just went through X, Y, Z, period. So, whatever I feel comfortable sharing. That could help people relate with me in some way. I was interested in your advice. Can you give me some advice on X, Y, Z? The point here is the middle sentence about putting something out there about oneself, because what usually happens now is in an audience of 400 people, there will always be 5 to 10 people who will come to you afterwards saying, my God, such a coincidence. My brother just went through this period and they are hiring someone or such a coincidence, X, Y, Z.
And so, what we’re doing here is we’re leveraging the audience of someone else in a very non-intrusive way. And by doing this, essentially, we are putting something out there that other people can connect to us.
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Brian Ardinger: It’s an interesting topic. Is this something that extroverts have a natural advantage to be able to do this? Or is this something like an introvert can get better at and take action?
Christian Busch: That’s a great question. As a closet introvert myself, you know, I have spikes of extroversion, but then I also need a lot of alone time and introvert Sundays and these kinds of things. So, there’s two interesting things here. The one is that extroverted people, a lot of times need someone who makes sense with them out of it. And introverts are really good at this, right? You see that a lot of times with couples where one person might be extremely extroverted and out there, and then their kind of introvert partner helps them make sense out of what they learned. And so, with serendipity, one of the beautiful things is all of us probably have these Eureka moments in the shower where like, oh my God, like this idea just came up whatever.
And this is because serendipity has an incubation time. It’s usually not just me running into you at a conference and we talk about something. It necessarily happens at the moment. It’s about a lot of times that I go home, kind of my subconscious maybe works a bit on edge. Like there’s something happening. I talk it through with a couple of people and then it comes up so introverts can help filter extroverts to come to better serendipitous outcomes.
And also, there’s a lot of ways for introverts to themselves, you know? If you think about what serendipity is about, it’s about connecting dots. And so it’s not only about connecting dots with someone I speak with, but it’s about when I read the book or when I see something on the shelf or if I go another street down next time and see another kind of coffee shop, whatever it is. But by the way, how I react to new information that could come from any place, not only people, I can do very similar things in a way.
A lot of times when you ask people, how did you get to that opportunity? It will not necessarily be that they say, Oh, I talked with X, Y, Z, but it might be, Oh, I coincidentally read in the New York times, X, Y, Z, and then I did X, Y, Z. And so, introverts is also, it’s really about being open minded about all the information that could potentially be out there and making sense out of it in one way or the other.
Brian Ardinger: It seems to be hard to track serendipity or like measure it, I suppose. Is there a way to better measure if you’re getting better at it, or if you are getting the value out of these types of tactics?
Christian Busch: Absolutely. So, one thing that we’ve developed is a serendipity scorecard. So essentially the idea is that you have a couple of questions that are about either creating more meaningful accidents. In a way, creating more of these potential interactions that could happen. And the other one more around, like, how do I train myself to connect dots?
And so, when you kind of go through this, like, let’s say you do, ideally you do a serendipity journal where you say, okay, I kind of think through these questions, you know, how do I ask questions? How do I, when I order a coffee, do I briefly use this moment, to also have a conversation, whatever it is, all these different things we could do and, you know, serendipity journal, then it’s really about saying what were the opportunities today for potential serendipity that I might’ve missed, right? Because every conversation potentially is an opportunity for serendipity, every conversation.
Every interaction, every walkthrough another street, like there’s always potential serendipity. And so, once we start thinking more about, okay, was there something maybe that I could have done with this? We put ourselves into that mindset of connecting the dots and then it starts happening all the time. I’ve always, I found that so joyful because a lot of my work in the past has been about social impact and impact measurement and so on. And it takes a long time. Right. You work on a project and after five years you get the results.
Versus with serendipity, no, you do a workshop on the Wednesday. And then on a Sunday you get an email from someone saying, Oh my God, serendipity happens all the time now, because once you get into it, it gives you also this enthusiasm because you know, serendipity is so much about the things we talked about, but it’s also about which kind of energy do you put out there that people actually want to help you, right?
Or it’s a lot about how we look at the world, how we frame the world and so on. And so, there’s a lot of experiments actually around the way we frame the world, predetermines a lot of how much serendipity we will have and one way to measure this. So again, like a lot of the research around this is qualitative. In terms of trying to understand, how did people get to a serendipitous outcome and you trace the process, but also there’s a lot of work arounds counterfactuals, right? What could have happened. So, if you think about something like in science, it’s like the example of these injections, like with rabbits, where two researchers, approximately at the same time, injected rabbits with Papain, the enzyme.
And it was kind of, you know, unexpected that the rabbits’ ears flopped, they just turned and, you know, both saw that unexpected thing, but only one of them actually connected the dots and said, okay, this must be around bloodstream. Okay. So maybe we can do something that paved the whole way for arthritis research, right. And like resulted in amazing outcomes around treating arthritis. The points here is that we can now trace that the same thing happens, but they react to differently to it. And so, this is why the one had a serendipitous outcome. The other one didn’t.
Brian Ardinger: So, we’ve talked a lot about how individuals can attract serendipity. And is there something that organizations can do to either create a culture of this mindset? Or is there something that organizations can do to get better at creating these serendipitous opportunities?
Christian Busch: Absolutely. I mean, there’s a lot of ways for the sake of brevity. I’ll focus on two that I find particularly helpful. One is really that idea of in a way developing rituals and practices that allow people to put potential dots out there. So, one example is project funerals or postmortems, where essentially what you’re doing here is usually in a business when something doesn’t work out, an idea or something else, we’re trying to hide it, right?
Because we don’t want to be the one who failed, or we don’t want to be the one who carries that kind of loss project. And so, in a way we never really learned from each other because we obviously learned the most from things that don’t work. If we see them as experiments, but we don’t learn from them if we see them as failure, that kind of determines us.
And so what the project funeral does is to say, okay, if a project doesn’t work out, take that idea and present it to people from other divisions, or from your team, whatever it is and say, Hey, look like this is why it didn’t work. Okay. So, we’re not celebrating failure. We’re celebrating the learning from something that didn’t work and it was an experiment. And so, to give you an example there, you know, they have this window frame, like a picture glass where the idea was the light wouldn’t reflect. And amazing technology absorbing energy, but they didn’t realize that there’s not a big market for that. You wouldn’t pay a lot of money for that kind of thing.
They laid it to rest in front of other people from other divisions and someone in the audience was like, Hey, Hey, but have you considered what this would mean for solar? If you take that technology and put it into a solar device. That’s amazing for energy absorption. And that is how part of this whole division emerged that company. It was coincidental, but that person was in the audience. It was coincidental there was that problem, but it was cultivated in the sense that in a way you gave people the chance to connect this stuff. So that’s number one in terms of really these kinds of practices, rituals that allow us to do more with it.
But the other one is really also about giving people the permission to do that in the sense of in team meetings for example, do we just ask things like, I don’t know, what did you sell late last week or so something like that, or do we ask something like, what’s surprised you last week? What were your assumptions that you had to rethink? And what’s interesting.
There is that a lot of times, you know, if you think about something like a marketing plan, you don’t want to be wrong when you have a marketing plan, right? So, you want to hope that it’s the right one. You don’t want to question your assumptions, but then you, a lot of times question them once it’s too late and once it’s very costly.
And so, the example I mentioned earlier about the potato washing machine is one of those where if we’re alert to the idea, that people might react differently to our product or our services. And we’re picking up on this and saying, we want to see the unexpected, and it’s not a sign of failure, it’s a sign of an open mind that we revise our plans.
And I’ve seen that we just finished a study with now it’s 43 or 45 of the most successful CEOs in the world. And we try to understand what is it about them that really kind of makes them successful. And it’s really that kind of ability to combine a sense of direction and like really kind of having a compass. With the ability to react to the unexpected and the humility to say this doesn’t question me if something unexpected happens, because it’s part of the journey. And I think this is really where it gets exciting, right? To say this kind of allowing for that tension versus like just trying to shut it down.
Brian Ardinger: And encouraging those opportunities to exist and fostering them. Well, Christian, we could talk forever, and we will continue to conversation at IO2020 and other places. But if people want to find out a little bit more about yourself with a book, what’s the best way to do that.
Christian Busch: Book can be found, you know, Amazon, bookstores everywhere. It’s called The Serendipity Mindset. The homepage is www.theserendipitymindset.com and I’m @ChrisSerendip on Twitter.
Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, I thank you for coming on Inside Outside Innovation. Looking forward to continuing the conversation and best of luck to you.
Christian Busch: Thanks so much, Brian.
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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