3 January 2020

Serendipity, Kairos and other fortuitous strengths

The mind sometimes needs words to describe new ways of acting or thinking. “Serendipity” is one such word…

The mind sometimes needs words to describe new ways of acting or thinking. “Serendipity” is one such word. Invented in the 18th century by an English writer, it originally referred to “the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for”. Its meaning has gradually extended into art, science and everyday life: Christopher Columbus looking for India and discovering America; Fleming discovering penicillin; Bell engineers discovering the omnipresent echo of the Big Bang … All enjoy a happy fortuitousness, which is another possible translation of the concept. If it is back in fashion, that is because globalization and the acceleration of innovations have made the world more difficult than ever to master. Creative destruction and constant disruption have made 10-year strategic plans ridiculous. With widespread connectivity and the permanent background noise of the media, chaotic logic prevails. Perceiving counts as much, if not more, than thinking or wanting. The control of a universe fades before the vision of possible multiverses.

A sharp look-out.

Whether a manager or an investor, today’s visionary is no longer a specialized expert, but rather a sharp look-out, with an eye on art, philosophy and science, ultrasensitive to the weak signals and intersections of society. Take the example of the sudden increase in value of a start-up like Beyond Meat, now supplying their plant-based protein products to KFC fast-food restaurants. It seems like the most unlikely alignment of planets! To see that coming and believe it to be possible, it was necessary to understand that climate change, social networks and obsession with health would combine to make animal suffering increasingly unacceptable and the very notion of meat eating to seem passé. Suddenly, a niche market has become a high-tech industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars, with leaders streaking ahead. Creating or locating disruption therefore counts as serendipity, provided you do not put it down to a stroke of good luck, which plays only a minor role. Serendipity is not chaos, but the art of riding it, thanks to a philosophy of listening, meeting, and of blending cultures.

People in the business world do not have the gift of second sight, instead they work to develop their intuition.

People in the business world do not have the gift of second sight, instead they work to develop their intuition. The most important economic or technological revolutions were not planned by anyone, but were guessed at and taken advantage of by a few. Even if some such revolutions were expected, no-one could have anticipated the precise opportune moment (the Kairos of the Greeks) or the speed with which they arrived. In other words, there are people already busy stacking bricks that do not at first hold firm, but that will build the empires of the future. We must see them in the dark, hear them through the noise … When Facebook announces that it’s issuing a private currency for use by its 2.5 billion subscribers, what can the banking sector do to save its skin? When is the tipping point? Is it too early or already too late for them to position themselves?

No success is sustainable, no failure is irremediable.

Technological and social innovation, boosted by digital technology, happens so fast that linear frontal control is no longer an option. No success is sustainable, no failure is irremediable. La Redoute, which experienced great difficulties in the past, got back into the game with a new approach, a model website and better logistics than Amazon. Who could have foreseen that? Innovation is no longer about paying engineers to invent the successor to the iPhone: it’s about forcing employees to speak English so as to open them to the world (like the Japanese firm, Rakuten); it’s about doing away with age criteria and recruiting associates below the age of 40; it’s about creating favorable opportunities; being determined on certain points, but for varied and unexpected results; working processes in advance, and agreeing to let go and for the fruits to be harvested elsewhere, turning off the Sat Nav to head into the unknown. For this reason, serendipity does not come to just anyone. When water is “disrupted”, turning into steam, it is not by chance, but because it has been gradually heated and one more degree has finally brought it to a boil. The same goes for the spirit of openness and the capacity to innovate, which must be constantly stimulated, as in a particle accelerator. The relative failure of the 20% of free time that Google granted its employees is explained by this dichotomy between official function and personal project. We are open or not, not part time and on command … It’s a real paradox: while the present is dominated by the analytical precision of digital technology, the future will be for the trackers of all that is unimaginable and unstructured.

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