Designing for Serendipity

Posted on by Brandon Klein

(a) Listen to people outside your cosy circle, starting with customers

When I was at Dresdner Kleinwort I had a fantastic team working for me, people who have gone on to do greater things because that was always going to be their destiny. It was a privilege to have been there. They were so good that I could spend time looking at unusual things, in efforts to try and improve our ability to create business value through teamwork and collaboration.

One of those unusual things was this: every now and then, I looked at the patterns thrown up by our email usage. How much of the mail we generated actually left the bank’s boundaries. Very little. How much of the mail sent by New York left New York (or for that matter any other location bar London”. Very little. London enjoyed “Head Office” status and therefore generated lots of mail for other locations, but in principle the pattern was the same. Most of the time, people sent mail to colleagues in the same location, to people they could have walked over to speak to. And very little of what they sent by mail went outside the firm. If you have the time, the inclination and the ability, take a look at what happens in your firm. It’s unlikely to be pretty.

Designing the network such that externals can participate is a good place to start. Making sure that you can recognise the presence of an external easily is very important, otherwise the environment becomes so error-prone that trust is weakened. Show the presence of externals using differentiated colours and fonts, as an example.

Build mechanisms that track how many of the people you follow are from the outside; from your partner and supply chain; from locations other than yours, from departments other than yours. If the only people you follow are people who look and feel and act like you, you’re not going to learn very much, your thinking isn’t going to be challenged, you’re not likely to spot the frictions in the handoffs.

(b) When listening to customers, bring in two dimensions beyond just traditional communications/conversation

Most companies get complaints from customers. There’s usually an abundance of complaints in comparison to unsolicited goodwill messages. So why not take advantage of this abundance? Make your complaints follow-able, embody them in the form of a person who publishes complaints into the stream. Make it even better, allow the complaints to be classified semantically. Follow the voice of the complainer, by theme or topic if possible. She’s unlikely to have the same biases as you do.

When you do this, try and retain the original words the customer used. Avoid the temptation to summarise-by-triage, throwing away useful and valuable information. Let me give you an example. Customer complains that her broadband is not working. Traditional scripted methods will go through a plethora of well-designed engineer-responses. And fail. Because the reason for her problem is she hasn’t paid her bill. You’re more likely to spot that if you see the words the customer used, rather than the “trusted” commentary that summarises what was said.

A second route is to use some way of collecting ideas from outside the firm and plugging that flow into the network. Companies like Starbucks and Dell have shown what is possible as a result of doing this.

(c) Always bring in some fresh thinking whenever possible

There are so many ways of doing this. Find out who’s joined the party recently (a new hire; someone from graduate intake; a new-name customer; a recently-formed partner). Start following them. In fact from a design perspective every time someone joins the network, they should be discoverable somewhere as newly-joined. Welcome them in by following them.

When someone follows you and you don’t know them, follow them back. I do this as often as possible, once I’ve verified that the person is a person and not a bot, and once I have checked that the person “speaks” rather than spams.

When you follow people, make sure you make a point of following people who are interested in the same subject but with a point of view that’s different from yours. If they’re interested in music and they’re all about country while you’re about folk, follow immediately; if they’re vegan-foodies while you think man and meat were destined as a pair, follow immediately. The point is to be in touch with people that have similar interests but not identical ones.

(d) Learn from the trends around you

Watch closely what’s trending in your network, amongst the people you know and trust. But keep an eye on what’s trending elsewhere. In a perfect world I would want to be able to say “Let me look at the stream as if I am in India; in Somalia; in Iceland”. Let me look at the stream as if I’m Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pastafarian, atheist. Let me see how 18 year-olds view this. Let me see what a new joiner sees on day 1. This idea, one of being able to encapsulate and transfer lenses, is something I will come back to in a post very soon.

When you see something trending that you don’t understand, do something about it. Find out what it means. Who’s involved. When it began. Stretch yourself.

(e) Go for a random walk

Stumble, just as in StumbleUpon. Go somewhere different; do something that’s not habitual, with people who aren’t habitues, in places that aren’t your natural habitat.

Again, more later. I’m still building on the arguments, delighted with the comments and mails and tweets and links I’ve been given. Please continue.