‘Bad luck’ now can be ‘good luck’ later – mindset tips for resilience and creativity by Christian Busch, author of The Serendipity Mindset
Christian Busch is the author of The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck (see my book review here).
The book explains that individuals and organisations can make luck favour them by taking conscious steps to cultivate the serendipity mindset and “serendipity field”. Success comes from an open and experimental mindset, and not just from a focus on efficiency. From entrepreneurs to scientists, this book features a range of case studies, and a 38-question checklist to assess one’s serendipity.
See also YourStory’s Book Review section with reviews of over 280 titles on creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation, social enterprise, and digital transformation.
Christian joins us in this interview on how entrepreneurs can cultivate serendipity, keep an alert eye for surprises, co-create with customers, and even find opportunity in adversity.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
YourStory [YS]: What is your current field of research in innovation?
Christian Busch [CB]: I’m mostly focused on the question of how, in a context of uncertainty — a fast-changing world — we can create innovation, impact and “smart luck”.
Much of our work has been on the question of how entrepreneurs can make the best out of what is at hand (bricolage); how incubators can cultivate serendipity to help entrepreneurs succeed; and how large companies can integrate profit and purpose, at scale.
YS: What were some of the unusual responses and reactions to your book?
CB: It has been a fascinating (and serendipitous) journey. I initially assumed that the book would be most relevant to startup entrepreneurs, innovators, and business people, as well as people who want to improve their lives and well-being.
That’s because it’s all about developing a serendipity mindset that allows them to make the best out of the unexpected, and turn uncertainty into opportunity.
However, I started receiving more and more “unexpected” messages — parents who felt that it gave them hope on how they can increase bonding within their families; and psychologists who felt that it could help their patients reduce their anxiety.
YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘stick to your vision’ and ‘adapt to a changed world’?
CB: One of our recent studies with over 30 of the world’s leading CEOs looked into exactly that question. And the results were clear: the most successful leaders combine a sense of direction or North Star with the humility to know that the exact strategy will probably change over time.
So they define principles, or a purpose, or anything that gives people the feeling they know where they’re going – and empowers them to come across unexpected data and information along the way.
Ways to foster this is to ask during meetings questions such as “What surprised you last week?” This legitimises the idea that we will need to “watch out” for the unexpected, which can potentially save us a lot of costs (as we identify “surprises” early on) and serendipitous innovations, such as the potato washing machine.
YS: Is there such a thing as the ‘ideal age’ for an entrepreneur, or can the startup bug strike you at any time? How should people keep themselves open to adopting a creative career later in life?
CB: We tend to assume that entrepreneurship is for younger people, but there are many people who discover the startup bug later in life.
You never know when it might happen – and that’s at the core of developing a serendipity mindset, the notion that a serendipitous (business) idea can strike anytime if you remain open and alert to whenever you “see” something in the unexpected (often when we least expect it!).
YS: How should business leaders evaluate weak signals and anecdotal evidence which seem to contradict quantitative market trends?
CB: One of the most important qualities in a fast-changing world is to be open to things that emerge unexpectedly and that might question our assumptions.
Take the example of the potato washing machine, where farmers mentioned to a large white goods company that their washing machines broke down whenever they washed their potatoes in the washing machine.
Instead of telling them to not wash their potatoes in the machine (it’s made for clothes not potatoes, after all), they realised that there are a lot of farmers in China — and built in a dirt filter to make it a potato washing machine.
Making decisions on which unexpected things to focus on requires good filters — like for example a brain trust of a few people who weigh ideas or an investment committee that decides on which ideas to invest into (like at Chinese company Haier).
YS: It’s one thing to fail with a product, and a bigger dimension to fail with a company. How should founders regroup in these two situations?
CB: I faced bankruptcy early on in life, with one of the startups I was involved in, and all my entrepreneurial pursuits there was always an element of fear of failure. Tough situations usually feel very heavy at the moment, but in the long run, provide interesting opportunities to pivot, and to rethink the model.
I’m a big fan of reflecting on the learnings of why something didn’t work and instead of considering it (or oneself) as a failure, to think about what might be the hidden opportunity behind it.
For example, for an entrepreneurial community incubator that I co-founded, we wanted to organise a big conference shortly before the financial crisis hit (2008). But the crisis (and sponsors jumping ship) forced us to completely rethink the model, away from a big conference to a more organic, community-driven, bottom up model, which turned out to be the most effective way to build a sustainable community in the long run.
“Bad luck” in the short run turned into “good luck” in the long run.
YS: Are there plans to launch an online companion with digital tools or new case studies?
CB: That’s a great idea! We are currently exploring a number of options, including highlighting the most inspiring case studies via media partners.
In case your readers are interested in sharing some of their experiences with serendipity, please do get in touch!
YS: How big a role do academics play in entrepreneurship? Can entrepreneurship really be formally taught?
CB: What I’ve seen over my decade of both practising and teaching entrepreneurship is that people can build a “muscle” based on the learnings of others; we can help shorten the learning curve and help make sense out of what works and what doesn’t.
We can help with the tools and approaches. We can help with the networks and inspiration. But of course, the key challenge is to actually do it, to develop the grit to be in a setting of uncertainty, to be resourceful, and to not give up.
That’s why we take students into settings where they can “experience” the challenges of entrepreneurship, we ask them to develop their own ideas and prototypes, and to test them in the market – there’s only so much you can learn about something without actually doing it.
I believe that at the end of the day, to paraphrase our role as educational institutions is to prepare students for their journey into the unknown.
YS: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new examples of serendipity you have come across, or new findings?
CB: The fascinating thing at the moment is that out of necessity, a lot of serendipity happens. For example, it appears that the reason why Oxford’s vaccine is so effective was due to serendipity (see Guardian article).
And breweries turned into hand sanitizer companies when they realised that their main customers such as restaurants went bankrupt and that they could use their alcohol for hand sanitizer. Times of crisis are a major source of serendipity – but they also are an opportunity to re-evaluate what’s important to us.
I highly recommend Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, which is all about finding meaning in crisis. It has been an inspiration throughout my life, including when I experienced a severe form of COVID-19 earlier this year.
YS: The art of conversation features prominently in your book, e.g. ‘rose-bud-thorn’ questions. What are some resources you can cite which would help our readers in this regard?
CB: In general, I recommend the School of Life, which has very nice content on a variety of questions, including on how to have good conversations (see video).
And yes, The Serendipity Mindset includes a lot of sources and examples from around the world, including Oli Barrett’s hook strategy, where the idea is that you can leverage every conversation for serendipity by “casting hooks” – sprinkling interesting information throughout the conversation, so that the other person can “connect the dots” for us.
For example, when someone asks What do you do, mention a small number of relevant items you are interested in (rather than just a job description). That tends to lead to better conversations – and serendipity!
YS: Your book also emphasises the need for co-creation. What are the differences between cooperation, collaboration and co-creation? Many people confuse these terms.
CB: That’s true! Co-creation is all about interacting directly and immediately with those who are affected, especially customers. Approaches such as design-thinking put this interaction at the core of the business, as this allows for constant iteration and innovation based on actual user needs, rather than an elephant tower solution coming from headquarters.
Collaboration is all about a coordinated activity where we consistently create and maintain a shared notion of a problem; it’s all about reaching a particular shared goal, like an orchestra. Cooperation is more about each person aiming to realise their own goals as part of a shared goal, like Facebook users cooperating to form a social network.
But the most interesting is co-opetition: where some competitors collaborate with each other at some levels while competing at others. Big “shared goals” such as the UN’s Sustainable Development goals have made it easier to focus on a shared goal (such as “eradicating poverty”) that competitors can work on together.
In our fast-changing world, we will see more and more co-opetition go on, as a way to save costs, to scale up fast, and to solve the complex problems that the world face. The same often happens within companies as well!
YS: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the findings of your book? Have Work From Home (WFH) and safe distancing drastically reduced opportunities for serendipitous encounters in offices?
CB: COVID-19 has shown how important necessity-based serendipity is. We talked about examples such as the COVID vaccine or breweries above, but it’s also artists who pivot to online teaching, and many other examples. It’s true that the traditional “water cooler” moments – where you just “bump into” someone in the corridors – are happening less.
But I’m a big fan of recreating serendipity online wherever we can, being it by how we have conversations online, how we ask questions, or how we design processes and rituals such as the project funeral (celebrating the learning of projects that didn’t work out) or random coffee trials (randomly matching people within a company for a coffee).
YS: What is your next book going to be about?
CB: I feel that there is still so much to be done with this book – I’d love for it to support people around the world to explore their potential. I have dedicated the next years of my life to implementing these ideas into curricula, into companies, and communities around the world.
YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?
CB: I am a big fan of Viktor Frankl’s notion that we cannot always influence the situation we’re in, but that in our response to the unexpected there lies our growth, our freedom – and serendipity.
Now, more than ever, it’s our response to a tough situation that will define who we are.