By Gloria Lombardi

“Serendipitous invention and the creative exploitation of ideas is a muscle that you can choose to work out or allow to wither” – Matt Kingdon

What made me think that I was going to read an interesting and useful book, was the author’s immediate suggestion to think of innovation not just as the results of ‘happy accidents’. Instead, it is more a deep and fascinating discovery journey, that involves intuition, the correct translation of ideas into realness, right behaviours and connections as well as hard-work.

“Creating innovation within a large organisation takes a mix of determination, provocation, experimentation and political savvy”, writes McKingdon.

If we follow the author advice, then to be ‘real heroes of innovation’ we should follow a series of steps that Kingdon brilliantly elucidates and extrapolates from a series of real practical examples.

Captain one minute, pirate the next

“It is human energy that drives innovation”

The profile of an ideal innovator is a ‘Captain one minute, pirate the next’; someone who respects the organisation they work for but does not revere it. This is due to the fact that innovators want their business to do always better and are dissatisfied with the status quo. To survive in the business world and constantly innovate, innovators have some special qualities:

a) Unreasonably ambitious: always pushing the boundaries

They know that their organisation needs to work towards a picture of something truly exciting. Aiming beyond their own limits to create better performance, they work hard to manage their network but allow others to take the plaudits.

b) Humble: knowing when to shut up and listen

“Innovators need big ambition but small ego”, writes Kingdon. They need to be opinionated enough to form a hypothesis but humble enough to know that their idea might not be the best one. They cannot get to attached to their own ideas, but constantly challenge themselves, which means, they need to be good listeners and consider alternative opinions.

c) Confident: believing enough to back yourself

“Confidence is not the same as having a big ego”, stresses the author. Instead, confidence comes from a belief that what you are doing is right. Innovators are confident in their own judgement and are not afraid to back themselves. They believe that the world could be a better place, even in a small way, and that they have the means to make this happen.

d) Collaborative: embracing diverse and external factors

Innovators are collaborators who value diversity, not only internally but also outside the company. They are curious, and work hard to foster links and a wide circles of contacts.

e) Flexible: navigate between expansive and reductive thinking

Innovators switch between what the author calls the ‘Planet Expand’ – where they are seeking out stimulus, looking for alternatives, having ideas – and ‘Planet Reduce’ – where they use their experience and knowledge to reduce the amount of choice they have generated.

f) Finisher: a relentless drive to ‘get it over the line’

“Innovators are good finishers, they get things done”, emphasises Kingdon. They are very good at keeping themselves and people around them focused on what has to be achieved. They are realists, crack problems, get their heads down and figure ways to unblock the system.

The quest for provocation

“Insight is created by the serendipitous collision of provocative observations”

Kingdon stresses the importance of deliberately seeking to have our view of the world challenged. It is something uncomfortable which requires tenacity and audacity, since searching for new stimulus can result with being told that our assumptions about the world might be wrong. Yet, it’s fundamental to innovation.

Innovators look at clues and across clues to get new insights, step outside their comfort zones to get deep understanding of why people do what they do. To drive ideas and solutions, we need to embrace the opportunity to get provoked and generate new observations. “This is where serendipity happens – it’s the mixing of lenses of provocations that counts”, writes the author.

Making ideas real

“Making ideas real delivers much better innovation because it forces us to stop talking and start doing”

To make ideas real some elements have to be in place such as the adoption of a co-creation approach to the innovation process which sees the involvement of multiple, but carefully-selected, players, the right environment and a clear brief. This implies adopting an expansive dialogue among members with regular meetings and heart-to-heart conversations. At the same time established behaviours are necessary to help people function as a team effectively.

Secondly, to make ideas real powering prototypes and testing is crucial. Today, technology and the digitally led world require us to adopt an experimental mindset and approach to explore various alternatives and validate ideas. The author suggests we plan for multiples rounds of experimentation, not just one long experiment, start with several hypotheses and recognise that we may need to kill our favourite prototype. This kind of experimentation needs a community and cooperative mindset. This last point by Kingdom makes me think of how valuable pilots can be for internal communicators who are starting to think of implementing social media inside their large enterprise.

As a way of looking at an innovation journey, the author suggests an equation, which is: ‘Identify‘ X ‘Insight‘ X ‘Idea‘ X ‘Impact‘ = Innovation

Identify = the strategic purpose

Insight = an opportunity for differentiation

Idea = the core concept

Impact = commercialising the idea through to launch

Each ‘I’ has a critical role to play and has to be mastered by a team that work fast, is confident in their gut, yet with a spirit of humility: “this spirit of humility is essential for fast-moving teams where listening and consideration are at premium”.

Creating space for serendipity

“The best innovation environments are not created through traditional management channels but are self-organised”

Space affects all of us deeply, our moods, our behaviours and our ability to connect with others. According to Kingdon, great insight and ideas do not just come naturally, and we should challenge frequently our desire to ‘nest’. The suggestion here if for our organisations to create structures that allow ‘collision’, people to bump into each other. A way of achieving that is by encouraging employees to sit wherever they want in an office. Collision is also emotional, not just physical. Eating together for instance can be a very powerful example of forcing emotional collision. And, if the organisation has the technology that supports working in different locations, then sitting in a different place each day can be a good recipe for serendipity.

Very important according to the author, is to have “a flexible space that allows people to either collaborate or get their heads down”. Different places are needed at different times for different tasks. Open spaces allow people to get together and play with new ideas, whereas intimate spaces allow them to be uninterrupted, concentrate and get their work done. All of them are necessary to innovate. Kingdon suggests that a good way to get the most flexible space for serendipity is to reframe it as a do-it-yourself activity rather than a management initiative. “Colleagues who design their space generally create a mix of social and ‘head down’ spaces. They spend less money than professional office outfitters and they feel more engaged as a result.”

Battling the corporate machine

“Pushing an idea through an organisation is much harder than having the idea in the first place. Sometimes it can feel like the battle is within your business rather than out in the marketplace”

The premise to fifth stage of the innovation journey, is that, even when innovation is set as a priority within the organisation, the corporate machine sometimes seems to work against rather than for it.

Rather than try to overcome bureaucracy with more meetings and presentations, Kingdon suggests to keep things simple, use plain-speaking dialogue and fight for what’s right for the service delivered outside.

Key here is to set things up at the start: “innovation needs to be carefully framed and scoped at the outset”. To get things moving, innovators need to manage their internal reputation, get assistance by key players and win over the naysayers. “So it is important that we anticipate all the issues that may crop up”, emphasises the author. Innovators need to propose how they will be measuring the development of their ideas, create stories, get noticed for what they are doing, and be authentic in their actions. They need to influence and spread best practice, develop an excellent relationship with the CEO as well as have terrific networking skills.

With that, they need energy and the right ‘headspace’: a combination of positive attitude, passion, clear focused time and tenacity.

This might be taken as another valid suggestion by those internal communicators who would like to engage their leadership team and other internal members more with the adoption of enterprise social networks. This would imply clarifying things from the beginning with a thought through business strategy, as well as building and maintaining ongoing dialogues and healthy relationships.


Innovation is a crucial component to the success of our organisations. For anyone looking to understand why and how to help themselves and their organisations face an innovation challenge, ‘The Science of Serendipity’ might be the helpful resource. Through this book you will be told that it is not just a matter of being lucky or having a genial idea. Far from that. So many successful stories involve people set out on a mission. Innovation here becomes a fascinating and learning experience coming from the conscious decision of a team to do something great for themselves and their organisations.

Kingdon nicely concludes by observing the whole journey from the inside: “There isn’t much more rewarding in life than staring at a blank page and then filling it with something of value – something you can point at and say ‘I did that!’