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Finding from a practitioner’s workshop: Open Innovation meets Systematic Serendipity

This year, innovation-3 had the opportunity to work with a number of leading firms on a cutting-edge subject. All of these firms were basically saying: “We have well-defined innovation search fields. On the one side this is good since search fields provide us with a clear guidance on what we focus on. But on the other hand search fields also have a big disadvantage: Since we are filtering out a lot of interesting topics we might be overlooking “a next big thing” coming from an unexpected direction. So here’s our question: How can we install a process that systematically scans for unexpected innovation opportunities without compromising our search field focus?”

In the second half of 2013, we have discovered a growing interest in this question. So we’ve set up a workshop with innovation-3’s Practitioner’s Expert Circle in order to test our thinking and to share Best and Emerging Practices. Some 40 practitioners joined and contributed their thoughts and experiences. The workshop took place on the premises of innovation-3’s partner SAP which also supported the workshop with their expertise and resources in Design Thinking.

Systematic Serendipity

The word “serendipity” has been voted as one of the ten English words hardest to translate. However, due to its frequent use in sociology and psychology, “serendipity” it has found its way into many other languages. It means a “happy accident”, a “pleasant surprise”, a “fortunate mistake” or “the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it”.

In our client projects, we also used the word serendipity in describing the process that our clients were looking for. However, driven by the nature of our client’s assignments, we were looking for a “systematic serendipity process”. At first sight this might sound like a contradiction. But we have learned in our projects that a systematic yet open and creative approach to define “reasonable”, “unusual” search fields coupled with an open and creative mindset in discussing ideas and opportunities with “unusual co-innovation partners” can produce convincing, serendipitous results with marginal extra resources and without compromising the innovation focus manifested in the existing search fields.

The “Systematic Serendipity process”

Here’s the process that we have worked out and that stood the test of the discussions in the workshop.

Step 1: Define the goal for systematic serendipity

Systematic serendipity can be conducted in two ways: It may be an approach for scouting trends but it may also be seen as a productive tool in the fuzzy front-end. We have found in our recent projects that our clients put more emphasis on the second alternative. In this alternative, the target of conducting systematic serendipity is “to identify new innovation corridors and search fields and/or  co-innovation projects with yet unknown innovation partners.”

Step 2: Define “reasonable” serendipitous search corridors

There are countless opportunities for serendipity out there and the fast pace of technological change produces more opportunities by the day. But if your firm, like our clients, has only limited resources, decisions have to be made. If one sees systematic serendipity as a tool amongst others in the fuzzy front-end, the process starts needs to define broad yet reasonable search corridors.

We have found that four criteria should be on the list for identifying reasonable / meaningful search corridors:

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  • Alignment in broad industry category – For a Chemical company, it makes little sense to look for serendipitous opportunities in Financial Services or in Software industries
  • Alignment in targeted megatrends – This allows for rapidly finding a common ground for discussions with the unusual co-innovation partner
  • Assumed overlap in market focus – Systematic serendipity provides value only if joint innovation discussions and activities are relevant for both sides. Obviously, assumed overlap is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for productivity in systematic serendipity
  • Different position in value chain – Usually, co-innovation opportunities in the existing value network of the firm are already taken care of by the existing (open) innovation management approaches. Systematic serendipity should there focus on potential partners outside these, such as e.g. by targeting other industries, different steps in the industry value chains

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Step 3: Define meaningful co-innovation partners within the defined serendipitous corridors

Within the defined corridors there is usually a large number of potential co-innovation partners that involve big corporates, start-ups, research institutes or other players. Again, since usually the firm’s resources are limited decisions have to be made about which of these should be put on the shortlist of partners for systematic serendipity. We have found that three criteria help in coming up with a reasonable selection of potential serendipitous co-innovation partners:

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  • Not an existing co-innovation partner – These are usually taken care of via existing (open) innovation management approaches
  • Minimum sales volume – In many firms, Corporate Venturing departments already address the relevant start-up companies space and “Scientific Relationship” departments keep contact with relevant universities and research institutes. So Systematic Serendipity does not need to be focused on these areas. Minimum sales volume is a data point that can easily be collected so it is very helpful to cut down the number of potential co-innovation partners
  • Strong innovator – It makes great sense to direct systematic serendipity at these potential co-innovation partners that have an innovator DNA. These firms can be found via desk research from published lists (issued by consulting firms, business magazines or others) or by looking at relevant conference speeches and information from industry associations

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Step 4: Define an effective process for opening up the discussion

Once a small number of potential serendipitous co-innovation partners have been defined, an effective process for opening-up the discussions needs to be defined. This process has to balance the aspect of serendipity, i.e. exploring whites spaces that have not been addressed so far with the need for a quick decision whether it makes sense to continue discussions with this particular potential co-innovation partner.

We have found that the effectiveness of this process step depends on three factors:
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  • Do your homework – Identify before the first meeting potential white spaces and potential areas for joint innovation projects
  • Open mindset – Keep your homework in mind but be open for additional or new topics that may come up in the discussion
  • Bring in the experts at the right time – Usually, the firm’s technology / market / innovation experts are busy with their respective day-to-day business. So it does not make sense to bring them into the discussion too early. However, bringing them into the discussions too late might lead to a position of resistance against new ideas and feed the “Not Invented Here” mindset

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