Sense and Serendipity

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A few weeks ago, a man crossing the road towards me dropped his glove (mainly because, like the rest of us, he was walking whilst texting whilst drinking coffee whilst suffering from deep, crippling anxiety about the state of the world).

As he got near me, I pointed it out to him. He thanked me, turned around, and walked back a few steps to get it – and as he did, bumped into an old friend who was crossing the road at that exact moment. Beaming smiles, a huge hug, an ‘oh my god I haven’t seen you for ages!’ start to the conversation that would never have happened had it not been for the escaping garment.

Nice story, right? But what’s that got to do with customer experience or innovation?

The comedian Bob Mortimer – famous for his long-standing partnership with Vic Reeves – tells a serendipitous story of how their life-changing creative partnership came to be.

In the same week that Bob’s girlfriend had unceremoniously dumped him, an old friend from his hometown knocked on his door out of the blue. He heard that Bob now lived in London and had phoned his Mum back in Middlesbrough to get his new address.

During the conversation, he invited Bob to go and see this new comedy show, Vic Reeves Big Night Out. Bob wasn’t fussed, but after a couple of days of moping around at home alone, thinking about his Ex, he decided he might as well go along.

The rest, as they say, is history.

But as Bob Mortimer writes in his autobiography, it could so easily not have happened: 

What if my Mum had refused to give Kingy my address? What if Kingy hadn’t been such a decent bloke to seek me out? What if I hadn’t been home when he called? Above all, what if Mandy hadn’t left me? I would never have taken up this invite if she was still around.’

Serendipity is an overlooked and under-appreciated ingredient in our lives, one that’s crucial to creativity and innovation. And whilst we can’t control it, we can create the conditions for serendipitous things to occur.

However, the way most of us currently work is anything but set up for serendipity. Endless hours on zoom calls keep us focussed on the functional task at hand. Back-to-back meetings leave no time for side-of-desk chats. Every spare commuting second is taken up by endless emails.

Whilst this way of working may give the impression of us being more functionally productive, it blocks us off from the world around us, dramatically reducing the possibility of those serendipitous moments of connection and inspiration that come from meandering conversations and interesting observations.

Dr Christian Busch talks brilliantly about this in his book ‘The Serendipity Mindset’. Discussing the detail during Roland Harwood’s ‘On The Edge’ podcast, he shared the story of two experiments conducted by Dr Richard Wiseman.

The first involved giving volunteers a newspaper and asking them to count the number of photos. Some finished within seconds, most took a couple of minutes. The difference? Those that finished more quickly spotted a big advert on page two saying: STOP COUNTING – THERE ARE 43 PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS NEWSPAPER. The others, so focussed on their task in hand, failed to keep their eyes open for other possibilities.

In the second experiment, participants are asked to buy a cup of coffee from the shop over the road which, unbeknownst to them, is filled with actors.

Some of the participants spot a five-pound note on the floor, order their coffee, chat to a well-dressed fellow at the counter, and swap business cards.

Others walk in, head down, keeping themselves to themselves. They don’t notice the money, don’t speak to anyone, and leave quietly without saying a word.

Those in the first group generally report they’d had a great experience and have a new business opportunity. These people are more likely to self-describe as ‘lucky’. Those in the second group are more likely to self-describe as ‘unlucky’.

This way of living has an impact on our customer experience, too, as we’ve increasingly replaced human connection with automation and algorithms. Whilst helpful to get us to an answer, it may not always be the best answer.

Rory Sutherland wrote about this for The Spectator, highlighting the value in human estate agents over online property searches:

‘An online search merely shows you what you think you want. When people buy through a human estate agent, however, they very rarely end up buying something matching the specifications they set in advance… When we buy or choose online… we never get to see what we might have bought had we chosen differently.’

As my 101-year-old Nan used to say. ‘Everyone always seems to be looking at screens or have things in their ears nowadays. How do they notice what’s going on in the world?’. And the less famous John Cleese once said that ‘creativity is sparked when people are enjoying themselves, not on their laptops’.

So head up, headphones out, say yes to new experiences. Let’s start creating the conditions for serendipity and creativity to occur.

Thanks for reading this article, I really hope you enjoyed it. You can subscribe to my monthly newsletter below, and find me in tweet form @johnjsills, in picture form on Instagram @CX_Stories, or in work mode at The Foundation

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