The Serendipity Economy turns our industrial age bias toward linearity, productivity and prediction on its head by suggesting that productivity doesn’t always lead to value, and that increasingly, we can’t predict where value will emerge from our work, or the magnitude of value that will come from that work. The Serendipity Economy examines value over long time horizons rather than invented demarcations periods like tasks, or quarters, even years.
If we examine nature, we find that time is relative and contextual. Although some predictability exists in the cycles of nature, the details of survival, evolution and procreation function as complex systems where randomness belies prediction. As the late science writer Stephen Jay Gould often quipped, if we rewind evolution, the world that would emerge from any point would be very different than the one we know.
Words with Friends
If we look at our lives, at our work, even at how we spend our leisure time, we would be hard-pressed to find predictable patterns where those patterns aren’t imposed by some outside entity. Consider social networking. Who we connect with and what we do once connected, cannot be determined at the moment we join the network. Every one of us has shared the shock and pleasure of reconnecting with old acquaintances, and those renewed relationships leading to adventures or opportunities we could not have imagined.
Words with Friends, the latest game craze from Zynga, offers some lessons that can help us realize the role serendipity plays in our lives, and if we think about it a bit, how those game experiences might inform how we manage our work and our organizations.
1. Being efficient doesn’t always lead to better results
A push. A poke. A swipe. Your tiles assert themselves as a word and a score in Words with Friends, traveling over the internet to your opponent as a welcome start to retribution or redemption, or as a nearly physical gauntlet. The speed with which you play matters little. What matters is how you play with what you are given.
Our industrial age bias constantly suggests we do more with less. The problem is that just being efficient doesn’t lead to value. Consider developing a presentation. All of the modern tools delivered by Microsoft’s PowerPoint or Apple’s Keynote facilitate the rapid development of impressive slides, but the value of those slides depends not on how quickly or efficiently they were created, but on the underlying value of the words, and the context in which they are delivered. Creating the presentation is distinct from the realization of value, much as the facilitation of collaborative word play offers efficiencies when playing with people in distant places, but it offers little to increase your potential for a higher score.
2. Context matters
If you win or lose a game of Words with Friends depends as much on the configuration of the board and the tiles you have at any point in the game as it does your skill. You may know that playing “Qi” at the right time can be devastating, but you may also have found a “Q” sitting in your tray near the end of the game unable to find it suitable refuge. As you pass, your 90+ point dream-play evaporates.
Much business success depends on context. Those organizations that go out of their way to understand context develop a more meaningful sense of their customers, their competitive environment and emergent factors that may enable or inhibit their ability to succeed. Organizations that focus on isolated strategic imperatives, such as being a low-cost supplier, may see their competitive advantage erode with the entrance of new competitors for which they have no response. In the Serendipity Economy, agility is everything, and agility begins with an understanding the world around you.
3. You can’t anticipate how what you are dealt will matter
Games and projects share something in common. They begin with an initial state. They are not part of a continuum of action like a function or an organization—they are discrete events. In the Serendipity Economy, even if you completely control the initial state, serendipity enters the moment you make a move or a decision. Outside influences immediately begin to perturb the best crafted of plans. Making promises based on the arrogance of experience can sometimes lead to unhappy outcomes. Consider British Petroleum and the extrapolation of their drilling experience to deep sea rigs, or Boeing’s unanticipated challenges with 787 outsourcing. Those, of course, are negative examples. Think too of Microsoft’s historic triumph when winning the DOS contract from nascent PC manufacturer IBM. Looking at any of those decisions at their point of origin would never lead to the catastrophic failures, costly reconfigurations or industry dominating positions that would evolve from them.
4. The network is opaque and its value cannot be anticipated
At no point during the game do the players of Words with Friends have idea what tiles their competitors hold (see a caveat under Cheats and other advantages). That is part of the game.
In the world of work, and in the greater world, much of your network is opaque despite exabytes of data and promises of transparency. The Serendipity Economy exists because much of what takes place in the network is unknowable. If all things were known, if all values were recorded and all processes mapped, perhaps then one could craft an algorithm to foretell the future. But even in the Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and its psychohistory, prediction works only on large scales. For individuals, for organizations and for industries, serendipity reigns.
The Serendipity Economy framework asserts that one cannot know who knows what within the network, nor how the potential of that network may manifest itself. You cannot, in Words with Friends, guess what words your opponents will play, nor the point totals of those words. And remember, Words with Friends is a bounded world consisting of a fixed set of tiles, a fixed playing area with fixed bonus squares and a relatively stable set of words to draw upon. How much more serendipity can we expect from our world and its near limitless possibilities. The Serendipity Economy challenges organizations to relax their notions of predictability and forecasted value in favor of the agility necessary to leverage value as it emerges.
5. Each move creates a new context
When an opponent connects, each time they play a tile in Words with Friends, the context shifts. This isn’t about strategy, but the state of current play. Each move changes the configuration, affecting how game play evolves. Good players adapt.
Change is hard. Every person who has ever put in a new IT system, experienced a management change or been involved in a merger or acquisition complains about how their world has turned upside down. New context is something we experience all of the time. Individuals or organizations who ignore a change in context and keep moving along a predetermined path risk being as trapped in their markets or their careers as do Word with Friends players failing to leverages small spaces because they focus on double or triple words to the exclusion of overall game progress.
6. One move can change the entire game
We know that the initial state doesn’t guarantee an outcome. Consider now the black swans of Words with Friends, the “Q” and the “Z.” Either, played at the right time, in the right context, causes the point spread swell, perhaps to the point of decimating one’s opponent. These introduced “forces” can significantly turn the tide of a game.
The same phenomenon occurs in the Serendipity Economy as networks reconfigure themselves, constantly changing their serendipity potential. It is important to note that benefiting from a perturbing force requires effective use of the force—and that black swans can be negative as often as positive. Huge swings in the stock market and the requisite loss of value change life for many. Imagine a world where viruses no long cause disease and the subsequent triumph for individual health trumpeted alongside faltering pharmaceutical firms scrambling to reinvent themselves.
7. Plan ahead, but don’t be surprised when someone trumps your future
You have just swept a few tiles in place, collected your score and the system has presented that result to your opponent. While you wait for them to respond, you mentally play your tiles across the board looking for meaningful patterns to play in the next turn. What letters will create the biggest scores, by stretching through a double word or triple letter, through two or more score amplifiers—in the best of circumstances, a triple-word-triple-letter combination? If you are lucky, your tiles include a playable “Z” or “Q.” When the game shifts back to you, your opponent has not only filled a prime spot with his or her own letters, but those letters block other spaces (and thus create a new context).
In strategy, resilience comes from preparing for multiple futures, not just one. Organizations use scenario planning to create multiple futures so that they can practice how uncertainty unfolds under different circumstances. There is no problem with having a vision, but a vision isn’t just about execution. In Words with Friends, this form of serendipity means not getting married to A word, and in strategy, in means holding A vision loosely.
8. You have to play the letters you are given
A tactical corollary complements the previous strategic perspective. At some points in a game, you may have little more than tiles worth one or two points. Your choices may be limited to common consonants or a mixture of vowels. Whatever the case, those are the letters you have. And yes, you can swap those letters for other letters yet to be played, but you lose your turn—and you are left with the new letters. Regardless of how you get the letters, the letters you are given are the ones you must play. Your job is to make the most of them.
The same is true in business strategy and in office politics. The circumstances you find yourself in are the ones you must work in, through or over. Wishing or cursing lead only to delays in action or increases in frustration. Time is better spent figuring out how to do the most with what you have.
9. Continuous learning is a good thing
Memorizing the valid two-letter word combinations provides a competitive advantage. Those seemingly impossible boards become more playable when the insertion of a single letter permits play to continue, and in the best circumstances, high individual word scores to accumulate. Even though context and the letters you are given create a constraining context, what you do with those letters also matters—and what you know is the only factor then that differentiates mastery from mediocrity.
The same principle is true in business. The more open you are to learning new things, the more adaptive you can become when change occurs. It is important to note that knowing is different than learning. Knowing in a constrained space, like Words with Friends offers value, because there are only so many acceptable words to know. Knowing in life or business, however, can be dangerous because what you know may be proven wrong, thus changing context and requiring adaptation—and adaptation is all about learning not knowing.
10. Cheats and other advantages
It would be remiss not to acknowledge that technology does indeed increase productivity. If you look at a website like scrabblefinder.com, you will easily be able to increase your ability to play obscure words, or rekindle knowledge of words hidden away in your gray matter. Words with Friends in-app purchases like the Word-O-Meter and the Tile Pile not only help Zynga grow revenues, but they help players increase their sense of context in a way that would considered cheating in a regular game of Scrabble. Word-O-Meter evaluates the strength of a word and the Tile Pile gives you a peak into the un-played letters, an advantage to those who want to swap tiles or those trying guess their opponents clutch.
These are perfect examples of false hopes derived from industrial age thinking. These productivity improvements help game players compete more effectively in terms of both time and quality, but only their revenue generating potential actually matters—their function in the world offers little if any perceivable value to those who employ them. Playing more games faster does not necessarily mean that the player will return to productive work more quickly. This same idea can be applied to misinformed choices for the use of technology in business, where organizations apply new efficiencies or new technologies to failing product lines or tasks better eliminated than improved.
Using Serendipity to Your Advantage
A Serendipity Economy necessitates a relaxation of expectations. Unlike the industrial economy where we have been taught to anticipate value and calculate net present values (NPV) and returns on investment (ROI)—to strive for continuous improvement and find faster, less expensive ways to do everything — the Serendipity Economy asks for patience, it allows value to accumulate and unfold overtime. The Serendipity Economy does not so much replace the industrial age perspective as creates a new context for it. Where industrial age models offer relevance, they should continue to inform the way we work, but we should avoid, at all costs, applying the strictures of those model to everything we do. Innovations, relationships and scientific discoveries are often governed more by serendipity than by linear, efficient, repeatable and predictable pathways.
The next time you play a game of Words with Friends think about your career and look for all of the places that unforeseen circumstances, quick shifts in anticipated or promised outcomes, and the emergence of value from unexpected sources have played a role in that history. Ask yourself if learning to accept change, navigate it with more agility, would not have benefited you. Then play your game and occasionally consider how to apply these lessons to your future so you can take advantage of serendipity when it presents itself.
Daniel W. Rasmus
Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.