For anyone who has ever taken a management course, the message is clear: focus on the tangible metrics and quit having fun! Even though managers focus on coordinating the efforts of other people, “people” are often left out of the equation.
In other words, management seems to inordinately focus on data and ignores the basic qualities of humanity in the people it seeks to direct.
But what if:
- We added some spontaneity to our management style?
- We characterized the surprising and unexpected as an opportunity rather than an obstacle to be avoided?
- We allowed our innate human need for growth to inform our change initiatives?
- We began enjoying the collaborative human connections and spontaneity of the work itself?
The 21st century is the age of constant (often unrelenting) change. While this is not the place for a philosophical discussion as to why we are changing so rapidly, the effect is that we humans are receiving continuous demands to modify, adapt, or totally transform what we have been doing. We do this in order to remain relevant in our careers and capable of competing in the global marketplace.
But change often terrifies many people.
It is not the change itself that is so frightening — in fact, we might even desire the outcomes of those changes. But it is the fear of letting go of the past in order to move forward to a speculative future. As well know, there are no guarantees as to what the future will actually hold.
Therefore, the truly frightening thing about change lies in the transition period between the way things are now and the way things might be in the future.
And it is in this fear that we attempt to control the unforeseeable. We forget how to be spontaneous.
The Argument for a Culture of Serendipity
As taught in universities, the cornerstones of management are: planning, organizing, leading, and controlling. Leadership requires managers to interact with subordinates, peers, and other followers in order to ensure that the company moves forward toward its goals.
A more disturbing trend in many business schools is that courses focusing on these uniquely human aspects of managerial competency are being viewed as “electives” that are not required for graduation.
Think about that: understanding how to effectively and proactively lead and manage people is not considered to be an essential skill for higher education in business.
In other words, are the four cornerstones of management (planning, organizing, leading, and controlling) really the only way to achieve success in an age of constant, unrelenting change?
By ignoring the human component in the modern organization, managers ignore the role that creativity, innovation, commitment, and belief play in moving the company as a whole through the dreaded transition period of change.
Therefore, the ability to allow (or even encourage) “serendipity” during organizational change should be an important competency in a acompany’s change leaders.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, serendipity is defined as
“Luck that takes the form of
finding valuable or pleasant things
that are not looked for.”
“Luck” is something that most business schools and organizations attempt to avoid at all costs: It can’t be controlled. It can’t be planned for. It can’t be predicted.
But consider this:
Luck = Preparation + Opportunity
Creating “luck” does not mean sitting back and doing nothing…simply waiting for “luck” to appear and make everything better.
What we call “luck” requires preparation so that we have the tools in order to respond to unforeseen opportunities.
These specific unanticipated opportunities may not be predictable (e.g., new markets or customers). They may be cloaked in rapidly emerging developments (e.g., technology or lifestyle changes). They may even arise as the result of chance meetings (e.g., a chance encounter with a desirable job candidate who had previously been “off the job market”).
But a culture that is open, curious, and committed to exploring new ideas provides the foundation upon which serendipity can not only exist, but also flourish. Luck and serendipity can become cultural characteristics that are nurtured and developed throughout and beyond the change initiative.
A culture of serendipity provides much needed balance during organizational change by reminding us of the fact that, while we can plan for the future, we cannot accurately predict the future.
In far too many change initiatives, rigid managerial standards are used to transition the organization from where it is to where it wants to go. This gap analysis focuses exclusively on actions that (we assume) will lead to predicted results. As a result, we rely too much on models and biased assumptions that can ultimately blur the ability to see and respond to what is happening now.
While I’m a firm believer in analysis to understand the underlying causes of any event (either good or bad), I also firmly believe that sometimes we need to “let go” of these models so that we can be more responsive to what is occurring around us.
As technology evolves, this “big data” allows us to drill down into a myriad of factors that are correlated with the effects and outcomes of our actions. By understanding the why, we are able to focus our attention on activities that are aligned with these correlations – and not “waste time” on other activities. It’s much more efficient, right?
But life is what happens when you’re planning something else.
In many change initiatives, we attempt to manage the transition by spending too much time on the preparatory actions that we expect to result in success or luck – but ignoring the importance and desirability of being open to new, unexpected opportunities.
Creating a Culture of Serendipity
If you think back over your professional and personal lives, you might find that many of your so-called “lucky” experiences were often not directly related to your planning efforts. More than likely, the “luck” was the result of being in the right place at the right time AND with the right skills.
If a large client suddenly wants information about your company, are you prepared with that information?
If the market has been steadily increasing its use of automation, have you been committing the necessary resources to ramping up your technology and educating your staff on how to use it?
Serendipity, luck, and preparation work together to create an environment in which fortuitous opportunities are more likely to happen. A culture of serendipity requires not only planning, but also a workforce that is encouraged and supported to be present, curious, and open to the unforeseeable.
Serendipity is an expansion of the traditional management model of planning, organizing, leading, and controlling — and it is necessary to create a flexible workforce that is able to respond to unforeseen circumstances.
Plus, serendipity creates a much kinder and gentler workplace that embraces the humanity of its workforce!
Here are 5 tips to help you embrace serendipity during your organizational change initiative:
- Be ready. Serendipity does NOT eradicate the need for planning. Even though the company is undergoing organizational change, the daily operations must still continue. Customizable templates enhance the ability to immediately respond to RFPs. On-demand learning keeps employees abreast of industry trends and opens discussion to allow ideas to percolate in developing potential responses. Providing continuity in the areas that are not the focus of the change initiative also creates islands of stability that can counteract change-related burnout.
- Be curious. Due to the wide variety of factors impacting it, change is unpredictable and is better led than managed. Leadership requires an openness to new ideas and perspectives: to address employees’ hearts as well as their minds. Embracing a culture in which curiosity is encouraged leads to greater employee questioning, creativity, and innovation in responding to challenges and opportunities. Unexpected events will occur during a change initiative. Curiosity and looking outside the immediate environment allows new ideas to emerge — which can be then adapted to resolve the challenges emanating from the change initiative.
- Be visible. It is very common for change leaders to “hunker down” during a change initiative and devote their waking hours (and even their nightly dreams) to “managing” the change. As a result, conversations and interactions are relegated to the rigid confines of their immediate networking circle. Because change can be unpredictable, this can prevent the serendipitous insights that exist outside these self-imposed boundaries. Expand your horizons both intellectually and geographically in order to create opportunities in which the “luck” of serendipity can occur. After all, a change initiative inherently moves people outside their comfort zones — so create ways to move outside your current box.
- Be willing to let go of something that is no longer working. This is perhaps the most difficult element of serendipity during organizational change. Change requires letting go — but not necessarily throwing the baby out with the bath water! It is important to fully understand the reasons behind previous policies, procedures, rules, organizational structures, and goals in order to decide which will support the changes…and which will undermine them. Change management requires fluidity and humility in order to let go of an idea that sounded so good on paper, but didn’t create the desired outcomes. A well-crafted vision is critical to staying true to the ultimate goals of the change initiative. By keeping this vision in mind, you become much more open – allowing serendipity to stimulate new, unanticipated ideas on how to achieve that vision.
- Smile, relax, and realize that you can’t plan for everything — but you CAN proactively respond. This shift in perception is fundamental to not only allowing serendipity to inform your actions during organizational change, but also to ward off burnout. A simple smile enables us to breathe, explore, and move forward. Planning (while a good and necessary foundation) is essentially only a plan, a documented road map — but it is NOT the actual journey. Serendipity keeps you open and curious, able to spot potential challenges and opportunities, and provide a more relaxed response to them. Managing with serendipity allows us to better navigate the unanticipated twists and turns that are inevitable during organizational change. But, perhaps more importantly, serendipity allows us to enjoy the ride, reduce the stress, and stay on course to achieve the desired results.
Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model. An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube. To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com.