Entries in Serendipity (5)
I met Sebastian Olma of Serendipity Lab through my friend Joe Pine. Yes, you can orchestrate serendipity!! Sebastian, an organization hacker, is the author of The Serendipity Machine - the inspiring story of the highly innovative, international coworking network Seats2meet.com. Sebastian and his partner Yulia Kryazheva travelled to many of the company’s locations worldwide (85+) to talk to stakeholders involved in the mesh on which the company is thriving. This is a fabulous story - let's make it work here!
Transforming your Business into a Serendipity Machine: The Case of Seats2meet.com
Step 1: Opening up
About 5 years ago, a then rather traditional Dutch meeting business started to scan its environment for innovation stimuli when it noticed a new group of professionals the company had never really dealt with before: independent professionals, aka knowmads, digital bohemians, free agents and so on. Mariëlle Sijgers and Ronald van den Hoff, owners of the company that was to become Seats2meet.com, knew instantly that they wanted this dynamic new breed of professionals within their company but weren’t entirely sure how they should go about it. So they did something that is actually against the law of business: they put a table into their lounge and invited them in free of charge. Van den Hoff recalls:
“In the beginning, we had this one table with 20 seats. I mean, we thought that would be the size of this thing, the number of people we could perhaps expect. And we didn’t want to register them or anything, or make them pay for their lunch. We just thought it would be great to have this new group of independent professionals around, give them some space to work and connect, and get some liveliness into those otherwise empty spaces in return… But we were literally overrun by them.”
By opening its lounge to the growing network of independent professionals, Seats2meet.com began to build an interface between its business and the wealth of social networks. The company understood that having 100 people sitting in your lounge tweeting, posting, texting and emailing about how great your space is is priceless. The power of viral marketing makes it sensible for Seats2meet.com to provide workspaces without asking for financial compensation.
Of course, this strategy only works because Seats2meet.com also offers a premium service: its meeting and office spaces. In the Seats2meet.com flagship location in Utrecht, for instance, the viral buzz in the open lounge leads to an average 95 per cent utilization of the meeting spaces. So formally, Seats2meet.com has created a freemium model that enables it to share a substantial portion of its physical assets with the growing number of independent professionals on a noncommercial basis. In return, they were able to get rid of their marketing department.
Step 2: Inventing a Currency
The next step was to use to find a way of formalizing the exchange taking place in the lounge. So Seats2meet.com invented a currency for nonmonetary, nontransactional exchange, aptly calling it social capital. What Seats2meet.com accepts as a payment for the use of its open lounges is simply the adoption of a particular attitude. It is an attitude of openness and sharing that anyone operating within a social network needs to have anyway.
For this purpose, Seats2meet.com requires its users to register via its app or website before they book a workspace. Each prospective user is asked to include a photo (or a hookup with his or her Twitter and/or LinkedIn account) and specify his or her particular skills and expertise. Every time a user books a workspace, he or she signs an agreement stating:
“As you are not paying with money for your workspace, we expect you to pay with social capital: to be open to unexpected and valuable encounters and to share your knowledge and talents!”
Clearly, paying with social capital doesn’t exclusively mean paying Seats2meet.com. It also means paying tribute to the social network physically present at the location by contributing to its strength and purpose. At Seats2meet.com, they have a term for this: “serendipity.” In the Seats2meet.com context, serendipity means the increased likelihood of an encounter that will add value to a user’s entrepreneurial activity. The company understands it as the fabric out of which value is created in the network economy. Serendipity is fed by the constant exchange of social capital. Seats2meet.com makes an enormous effort to develop the best technology available to support this serendipity. This is why it asks users to sign in to the system: doing so allows them to see the current state of the Seats2meet.com social network.
This is done via a real-time community dashboard, which lists the registered users and organizes their skills in a cloud. This enables the user to decide on the best Seats2meet.com location based on the skills of people available at each. A dashboard screen on the wall is also an integral part of every Seats2meet.com location, giving users the opportunity to always see who is present at every site. A web designer we met in the workspace at Utrecht railway station says, “This is a great tool! I always use it to Google who’s around before I start working.” For other users, it serves as a contingency tool, something they can use “to always find an accountant or a developer in case of emergency.”
Whatever its different modes of application might be, the dashboard screen visualizes the Seats2meet.com network at any given time, turning the open lounge into a veritable serendipity machine. As soon as one enters a Seats2meet.com open lounge, one is able to see the skills and competencies of everyone present at the push of a button.
Step 3: Building a Mesh
By combining the traditional logic of money capital with the new logic of social capital Seats2meet.com has not just created a mutually beneficial interface between those worlds. The company has also created a platform for new kinds of value networks that together are co-creating a new economic playing field. There is indeed a “mesh” that has formed around Seats2meet.com, i.e., a constellation of networks of professionals forming a dynamic collective intelligence to which everyone contributes meaningfully in his or her own way. The mesh dynamically connects networks, raising their capacity exponentially. This is not your relatively static Facebook or LinkedIn group: people come and go all the time; networks connect, disconnect, and reconnect. Yet the mesh as an ecosphere remains intrinsically stable; it evolves, and this is the condition for its survival.
In mesh networks, people act as sovereign “nodes,” deciding for themselves whether or not to share information with other networks. Therefore, the networks themselves become extraordinarily dynamic and flow into each other, forming a mesh. This makes it difficult to determine the exact place of value creation within the mesh. It no longer happens between four walls under a single roof in a building with the company’s name on it. The actual site of value creation has, in fact, become a non-space, a mesh of distributed relations waiting to be engaged by an organization in order to do what the mesh does best: create value.
The future will belong to organizations that embed themselves within their “own” mesh. You cannot, of course, own or control a mesh. However, it is possible for an organization to turn itself into a serendipity machine by connecting to and sharing resources with potential stakeholders. This is the way to co-create a mesh, and the only way to construct a resilient guarantor of future value creation.
You know how Amazon, Netflix, and everybody else have a ‘recommender’ service? Based on what you’ve bought, browsed, read, listened to, they suggest things you may like.
But if I’m always being told about things that are “like” what I like, how will I discover new and different things? It could constrain opportunities for serendipity and luck (which I’m pretty dependent on).
I’d like an Anti-Recommender Service!
Do you remember playing the “which of these is not like the other” when you were a kid? That’s how we learned and developed preliminary pattern recognition skills. Somewhere along the way, it switched! We were taught to look for “which of these is like the other” (the old “don’t compare apples & oranges” routine). Having been raised in a home that thrived on cognitive dissonance, I find this incredibly frustrating.
My ideal anti-recommender service will tell me about ideas, concepts, books, music, art, sites, bloggers, periodicals, tweeters, etc. that don’t fit into the ‘nice neat stereotype’ that’s been created about me. It will point me to:
- Blogs that may disagree with my viewpoint making me think and question assumptions;
- Music I wouldn’t necessarily listen to but end up liking (from Massenet to Kevin Chesney) opening new harmonies and stories in my mind;
- Books that wouldn’t have picked up but am now a sucker for (e.g., Nordic/Swedish crime novels) making me use my brain differently; and
- People I wouldn’t normally cross paths with who bring new experiences, viewpoints, tastes, flavors, cultures, and ideas that greatly enrich my life, and others.
There is nothing inherently wrong with recommender services – except for lack of a counterbalance. We need both to learn and grow – ourselves, our people, and our organizations. We need both to innovate.
So, who among you would like to build an anti-recommender service? I’ll sign up to be an alpha, beta, whatever customer and I’d be willing to pay for it! Or, if you know of one, please please share it! Thanks!
When you see a need or issue, what do you do? Most of us shake our heads and say, “Someone should take care of that.” Well, someone = us!
Perhaps one of the reasons someone ≠ us is that the perceived risk of ‘doing’ diminishes our courage. Perhaps innovators and entrepreneurs aren’t more risk-o-philic, they just define risk differently – not following one’s passion and purpose is a greater risk than financial or reputational security. Perhaps this is a basis for Rebellious Optimism.
As some of you know, I’m so enthusiastic and hopeful about our future because of the people I’m serendipitously meeting, of all ages, shapes, sizes, creeds, and colors. Let me highlight 3 companies, separated by 162 years:
NBA Math Hoops: What do you do when you’re 19, in college, and have a burning passion to help underprivileged kids learn math using their passion for sports? You create a scalable solution! Meet Khalil Fuller. The NBA has given him a free license agreement, Hasbro’s committed $100,000 to make the game, and Echoing Green named him as a finalist for their prestigious fellowship. A national pilot with a majority of free/reduced-lunch students shows significant improvement in 51% of the math scores and improvement in attitudes about math – for both boys and girls. Khalil is preparing for a 2012 Fall launch.
Lesson: Get out, meet some Gen-Zs and Millennials. We can all learn from their transformative innovations.
Thogus: You’ve just spent big bucks getting ISO certification for half your revenue stream, the Big-3 Auto guys; but you’re tired of being their “bank”. So you fire them! Now what? 3rd Generation Matt Hlavin decided to create a 61yr old startup. He reinvented the entire business model and the company is growing exponentially. What was a ‘job shop’ is now a high-tech and biomedical design and engineering company with rapid prototyping/additive manufacturing up to full-scale injection molding capabilities. Matt is using design to balance the experience of age with the freedom of youth, from their gym to the plant floor to employees themselves.
Lesson: A key to success is the 21st Century is embracing, leveraging and balancing paradox.
Menasha Packaging: Meet the163-year-old family-owned company who’s leadership team reinvented their business model and re-invigorated their culture 7 years ago, putting their careers on the line. What drove this level of risk? Stewardship & Optimism. They view themselves as stewards of their customers, their employees and families, their economic and social community impact, and the family legacy. They have Rebellious Optimism that they can and will succeed. Menasha’s ongoing success, even in the recession, is testimony for “doing what is right”. They are well known for bringing some of the most innovative, effective solutions to market. They are hiring talent and growing. And, as I post this, we are in the sunny Wisconsin woods, continually innovating the future.
Lesson: Don’t use a company and management’s age as artificial constraints for innovation.
What examples do you have of Rebellious Optimism? Please share and think about telling your story at Rebels At Work!!!
As I’ve been getting ready for my ‘sabbatical’ and BIF-7, the role of serendipity has been top of mind. Serendipity is a hot topic, especially its role in innovation. One of the best reads isJohn Hagel & John Seely Brown’s book, The Power of Pull.
Serendipity is loosely defined as a “happy accident”. Horace Walpole created the word in a letter to Horace Mann on January 28, 1754 stating, “This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.” The word is based on a Persian fairy tale from the 14th century titled The Three Princes of Serendip “whose heroes were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”  Serendip is the old name for Ceylon now known as Sri Lanka. It stems from the Arabic Sarandib originating from the Sanskrit Simhaladvipa that translates to “Dwelling Place of Lions Island” (source: Wikipedia). Even the origin of the word is serendipitous!
The cycle of serendipity (or not) came to me while having coffee yesterday with Valdis Krebs: “what you know depends a lot on who you know which depends a lot on what you know which depends a lot on who you know”…iteratively. If you stay within those confines, your network remains fairly constant and self-selected. Your chances of learning something new, of encountering ‘happy accidents’ is reduced, perhaps not zero, but not high. It’s when you venture outside of that circle that your network, and knowledge, starts to expand - you ‘know’ more people so you ‘learn’ more which leads to knowing more people and on and on.
As I reflect upon how I know what I know, almost all of that knowledge & network has been serendipitous - Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS), to quote Saul Kaplan. Let’s look at Random (and then examine the other words over the next few weeks before BIF-7). The OED defines Random as “Having no definite aim or purpose; not sent or guided in a particular direction; made, done, occurring, etc., without method or conscious choice; haphazard.” Originating in the 14th Century with an unclear origin, it meant impetuosity, sudden speed, violence. In the mid 17th Century, it took on the meaning of haphazard, from the Old French randon (v. randir “run impetuously, fast”) from the Frankish rant “running” from the prehistoric German randa. But here’s where I think it gets very interesting. Originally, randa meant ‘edge’ – which lead the English rand, an obsolete term for ‘edge’ (now the South African currency).
It is this last, or very very early, meaning of ‘edge’ that intrigues me. Innovation, especially disruptive innovation, comes from the edges, from the fringes. So, for the next week or so, just try to put yourself in Random situations – situations that are not planned, not directed and even perhaps at the edge of your usual business or personal world and see what happens. If you’re willing, please share in the comments or here.
p.s. I am a bit enamored with the entomology of words – it shows the flow and evolution of language which means of people, of societies, of commerce (words moving from Sanskrit to Arabic, from German to French to English, etc.), of culture…of our own past and future.