What role can serendipity play in learning, innovation and building networks?

Victoria Betton H&S1Guest blog by Victoria Betton, Deputy Director of Partnerships & Innovation at Leeds & York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. She joined the leadership team at Sheffield Business School and other business leaders for a round table discussion about the role of training and development in achieving organisational vision and goals.

It was great to be invited along last month to the round table discussions led by Sheffield Business School.  The research being carried out by the university around the gap between leaders’ vision of learning culture and the grass roots reality is really interesting and feeds into discussions I have been having about how we support learning and encourage innovation where I work.

My role at the Trust involves finding new and more effective ways of working, and developing new partnerships and networks to enable better, more efficient and effective service delivery.

In her recent blog Kath Fontana highlights the Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M Christensen, pointing out that “if an idea is genuinely innovative, there is no way you can know its outcome, least of all the ROI.  Our challenge is to create space to innovate and allow failure – by its nature not every new idea will succeed but you won’t know till you have tried.  The role of the senior manager is to create that safe environment and to develop our middle managers so that they know what innovation looks like, and are comfortable in the innovative space.”

Courtesy of Rubin, V.L., Burkell, J. & Quan-Haase, A. (2011). "Facets of serendipity in everyday chance encounters: a grounded theory approach to blog analysis" Information Research, 16(3) paper 488.html [Available at http://InformationR.net/ir/16-3/paper488.html]

Courtesy of Rubin, V.L., Burkell, J. & Quan-Haase, A. (2011). “Facets of serendipity in everyday chance encounters: a grounded theory approach to blog analysis” Information Research, 16(3) paper 488.html [Available at http://InformationR.net/ir/16-3/paper488.html]

Recently I’ve been thinking about the part serendipity, or the art of finding something good or useful whilst not specifically searching for it, has to play in organisational learning and innovation. I’ve also been reflecting on how online social networks such as Twitter might be accelerating a trend towards more distributed networks that create more spaces for serendipity to occur.

Structuring in serendipity

Nesta-coffee-trials-2Serendipity is not necessarily easily and readily quantified, so who’d blame a company for being hesitant to sanction their staff to build the accidental into their working day? However, one organisation has done just that and they have carefully evaluated the results. NESTA have ‘institutionalised serendipity’ in their randomised coffee trials in which staff are encouraged to meet up with someone in the organisation they have never met before for a 20-30 minute coffee. The organisation gives permission for its staff to take a chance on meeting a colleague, building new relationships and finding points of connection. In doing so, the trial generated hundreds of new networks within just four months.

The value of networks

The value of networks cannot be overstated. The value of business networks may be much easier to quantify in terms of sales generated, but for not-for-profit organisations such as NHS Foundation Trusts (which themselves deliver £30bn annually in economic value), networks are our most valuable asset and are the glue that holds whole communities together.

Seeking out the unexpected

Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Whilst I may not have a NESTA type framework in place in my organisation, I’ve noticed that I tend to create space serendipity in my day to day work.  I actively seek out conversations with people who have little obvious direct relation to my job – both face-to-face and through Twitter.  I’ve found through experience that such dialogue often leads to unexpected insights, solutions to problems, or opportunities for partnership working that weren’t immediately obvious. Sometimes the connections aren’t immediately apparent but a month or a year down the line that conversation comes back in to play and is reignited. Online social networks afford the opportunity for us to expand our connections beyond the limitations of time and geography and make it convenient to network with others.

So where to start?

In an age of austerity, the day to day experience of front line workers is increasingly one of less time and increasing workloads. Management are continually seeking ways to increase efficiency and reduce costs – not the greatest context for building in flexibility and taking a punt on serendipity. But I would argue that both sanctioning and creating space for people to build relationships, make connections and challenge their thinking is exactly what organisations need to remain competitive, to innovate, and to foster great leadership for the future.

In my NHS Trust we are increasingly using open space as an approach for building conversations – particularly where we want to bring a disparate group of people together to generate solutions to a problem. It is not dissimilar to the principles underpinning randomised coffee trials but on a bigger scale.

Image courtesy of emptyglass / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of emptyglass / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

People are brought together around a common theme; they decide the conversations they want to have and they are responsible for taking away the learning; they are empowered with managing a part of their own training and development. Social media can be used to amplify and extend that engagement in real time.

Both approaches require organisations to extend trust to the people and to be prepared not to control the conversation. They have the potential to create energy and surprises in equal measure. What is common to both is that they structure in spontaneity and creativity. I would argue that, alongside tried and tested innovation and improvement tools, many of which can be found on the NHS Improving Quality website, we should not underestimate the function of serendipity in the mix.

So my top tips are:

  • Structure in serendipity – find frameworks that enable it to happen
  • Give people permission to build relationships as a valuable part of the their daily work
  • Seek out conversations with the unusual suspects
  • Encourage use of social media as a cheap and easy way to network and amplify connections.

By allowing yourself and your staff the space to build relationships and develop networks, you are ‘future-proofing’ your organisation by investing now in the people and ideas that will bring you success in the future – I challenge you to try it first, and measure the outcomes over time.

You can’t schedule for the arrival of “the next big thing”, but you can ensure you don’t stifle it before it has a chance to begin?

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