Quantifying serendipity


by Melissa Mesku

Coworking has long been lauded as a way to “accelerate serendipity.” A number of coworking leaders have written about it; plenty of business publications have covered it; Salamanca, Spain has a coworking space named after the phenomenon; there’s even a U.S. coworking franchise called Serendipity Labs.

In its essence, serendipity is when you accidentally stumble upon something great, particularly in a place you weren’t looking. It’s a lot like luck: for it to be serendipitous, it’s got to be a good thing and it’s got to be unplanned. “Fortunate happenstance” is a rough translation for this slippery concept that most languages don’t have a word for.

The New York Times recently featured an opinion piece, “Cultivating the art of serendipity.” In it, author Pagan Kennedy calls for further inquiry into the subject, perhaps even a new interdisciplinary field to “help us create a taxonomy of discoveries… [and] organize the study of serendipity.” She’s on to something; for all that has been said about serendipity, even within the context of coworking and business, little has given way toward a systematic understanding of how it works and how it might be measured.

Business in particular would do well to know. If studies existed to show such things, we’d probably find that serendipity is responsible for, oh, maybe a hundred percent of innovation, breakthrough discoveries, game-changing insights and other desirable yet unplannable outcomes. (Isn’t that what techies in Silicon Valley are hoping to find when they drop acid at work?) Serendipity plays a significant role that will become increasingly obvious to the business world in time, at which point we can expect all number of ham-fisted corporate attempts to institutionalize this nuanced, delicate phenomenon. In the meantime, those ahead of the curve are beginning to articulate how serendipity takes place and explore how to create environments that court it.

Coworking leader Angel Kwiatkowski in a Deskmag article discussed the book The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0 by Sebastian Olma. In it, she said the author explains how “companies can alter their culture to become ‘serendipity machines,’ places where these valuable encounters have no choice but to take place. In essence,” she continued, “he’s teaching companies how to become more like coworking spaces.” It’s a worthy endeavor if institutions are to profit from the path that coworking has blazed. Kwiatkowski continued, “[C]oworking is the fast track to serendipity,” and recommended the following: “[I]f you don’t have a big company, or you want to give this trend a try before starting your transformation into a ‘serendipity machine,’ let your employees coworker for a day or two a week. We’ve got all the serendipity you need.”

This is something people in coworking know quite well, and something that can be painstakingly hard to explain to others. If coworking spaces are indeed full of serendipitous possibility, what does that actually look like? I’d hate to skip a good opportunity to “show, not tell” but I, like many people who have spent years working at a bonafide coworking space, am too burdened with examples to even know where to begin. My first freelance client? Got it at my coworking space. The first money my company ever made through content marketing? Learned how to do that at my coworking space. The feeling that I’m finally on the path toward doing my life’s work? Got that from coworking, too.

Is this even the way to quantify it? Is serendipity justly measured by its results? I could, for example, work in isolation at home, take an online course, and come away better off – good results, but it’s not the same. Serendipity is partly about garnering a beneficial result, but the other key part is the process. Or, rather, serendipity means attaining a beneficial result without any process at all. Its unpredictable nature gives it an almost magical quality. It’s this accidental aspect that makes serendipity what it is. The focus can’t just be on the result; a results-oriented view is economic, transactional, and ignores the ripple effects that serendipity creates. Serendipitous results are more like an additional reward on top of what is already rewarding: friendship, conversation, connection. The outcome is just the cherry on top.

To accurately explain the ways in which I’ve experienced serendipity via coworking, I’d have to include the multiple experiences of delight that come with discovering just the right thing out of the blue. So please let me try again: My first freelance client – I said I got this at my coworking space. But that’s not the full story. The full story is it had never even occurred to me to try doing freelance work and then one day my friend at the coworking space was complaining about a client he didn’t want disappoint but didn’t want to take on, and in conversation we both realized that I had the skills to take the client on instead. He sent an email recommending me and within ten minutes I had my first client in what later became a full-blown career.

Again, if we measure this strictly by my own results, we’d be measuring the fact that I got a client ($) and the fact that I made inroads into another career path ($+). But the biggest result is the intangible, immeasurable sensation I had of being (1) grateful that I had befriended this particular person, (2) touched that my friend trusted me that much, (3) proud that my skills were perceived to be sufficient for the job, (4) aware of how others perceive me, (5) delighted that this solution worked out well for everyone, (6) thankful that I didn’t just stay at home in my pajamas… the list goes on. And this is just my list; the solution was actually a triple win in that it solved three people’s problems. If we are to use math here, we might consider the multiplying effect to be exponential or even factorial (!), multiplying again and again for each number in the chain of cause-and-effect.

Serendipity could be written as an algorithm as it is a function of several things. Articulating what those things are would be a major step toward reverse engineering it. Eventually the business world will attempt to harness serendipity in the service of productivity, to mass-produce it, to make it predictable, repeatable. To anyone who earnestly attempts this, I wish them luck.

“[E]ven if we do organize the study of serendipity,” The New York Times article concluded, “it will always be a whimsical undertaking, given that the phenomenon is difficult to define, amazingly variable and hard to capture in data. The clues will no doubt emerge where we least expect them… the journey will be maddening, but the potential insights could be profound.”

This description of serendipity — difficult to define, amazingly variable, hard to capture in data — sounds like a description of coworking itself, or at least its intangible aspects. And as anyone in coworking knows, coworking’s value is in the intangibles. Serendipity is merely one of them.

Image credit: Photo courtesy of Ian Schneider

1 Comment

  1. Ramon Suarez 01/12/2016 at 6:28 am #

    Great article Melissa.

    Serendipity is a creative process and as such it can not be scripted. What we do at coworking spaces is to set up the best possible environment for it to happen, promoting trust and interactions.


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