2024: The Year of Serendipity

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This article is contributed by Matt Whale, MD of StudioSpace agency How to Impact - a strategic design & innovation consultancy that helps organisations develop the right mix of mindsets & methods to tackle the biggest problems - shared his insights on this with us.

When we look back on 2023, what will we say? Will it be remembered as Generative AI’s breakout year: winning photography competitions, inventing new materials, causing $100 billion falls in stock market value, and beating world champion drone racers?

Or will it be remembered as the year that remote working began to be rolled back, following the decisions by global tech-led corporations such as Meta, Disney, Amazon and Dell to ditch their flexible working practices, and the ruling of Fair Works Australia in November against Gregory.

Gregory is the employee of salary packaging provider Maxxia, who had requested the right to work 100% remotely. Maxxia argued that his productivity was too low, and that his office attendance would be “advantageous to observe and support [him]”. Ouch.

And Maxxia are not alone. In October, KPMG released a survey of 1,300 CEOs that showed that not only do the majority expect all employees to be back full-time within 3 years, but that a similar majority (89% global, 75% Australia) commented that they would: “reward employees who made the effort to come into the office – in terms of raises and promotions, and better projects.”

This feels like a rather ominous, carrot-and-stick way of thinking about the office: a place of staff ‘observation’ and participation awards. For one, it’s missing the point that the office is just one potential co-working space, and for another It’s missing the point about the natural upside of bringing your people together more: serendipity.

Serendipity is a lovely word to say. It’s also a lovely thing – ‘the fact of something interesting or pleasant happening by chance’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Serendipity is often credited to contributing significantly to innovation – those accidental connections that collide different worlds and thereby provide a previously unseen illustration of how to tackle a challenge differently. Teflon, Velcro, the microwave oven, pencillin – some of the most well-known innovations have serendipitous origins that have become myth.

But it’s not just ‘eureka’ innovation moments, it’s also the combined brainpower and thinking styles that come from unplanned interaction between colleagues from different parts of the business when they have an increased likelihood of being in the same space, or the right space.

I think 2024 could be the year of increased serendipity as a natural opponent to automation in practice and thinking. We’ve had enough time since COVID to invite a little more chaos into our lives and embrace the natural energy that human beings create when they come together.

Why would a year of Serendipity benefit us?

1. Different conversations

In knowledge work, conversations are invaluable. They are testing grounds of ideas, the formation point of informal alliances and a key means of learning.

The defining work of business is conversation - literally. And ‘knowledge workers’ are simply those people whose job consists of having interesting conversations.

“When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought.” Theodore Zelman

Meaningful conversations occur in the same physical space, when eye contact, body language and even pheromones all enrich what we say – and don’t say.

Working with a client in the care sector, we were mapping the carer journey with a team of champions who were staunch advocates for their clients. On my first visit to a customer home with a senior manager called Mark, I asked the carer-parents we were visiting a raft of questions. Mark jumped in and answered many of these for them. He was so used to advocating for his clients, he did it as second nature. After that interview I politely told Mark that I wanted to hear the answers from the carers and not him, so could he please SHUT UP. He did, and in the second interview I got to hear the answers from the carers themselves without interruption.

Afterwards we de-briefed and I asked Mark about his experience. He said: “When you asked the questions, I answered them in my head. And almost every time, my answer was wrong.”

It’s not just about having conversations, it’s also about taking the time to listen.

There’s an art to structuring conversations for gathering insight, whether they are with end-users, peers, creative workshoppers or with novel experts, and we’ve witnessed some incredible impact in businesses especially when they break away from the screen.

2. Fulfilment and Productivity

As humans, we have a biological need to be connected. Connection is an essential part of Well-Being Theory (Seligman), and if people feel connected they are more likely to create good work and stay the course.

In June this year, a study by researchers from 3 Australian universities showed that working from home made the average worker less productive and more anxious, depressed and lonely. It’s not a coincidence that ‘quiet quitting’ evolved at the boom-time of WFH.

This doesn’t mean we all need to be in the same hub at the same time, but that we should consider either picking the most appropriate physical spaces to share or how to enliven the physical spaces we are in. Pop-up labs in under-used offices, all-day café bookings and garden meetings are just some of the alternative ways to meet, explore and experiment.

3. Developing Empathy

Anyone working in design or innovation needs to empathise with, and understand their audience. And anyone who’s had to manage the shift in end-user interaction to video calls will attest to the challenges in building that empathy muscle through the screen.

This year, we helped a major QSR brand re-design their end-to-end drive-thru experience, which involved spending a LOT of time sitting in people’s cars with them, eating, talking, driving, eating some more. It has also involved a lot of quiet observation and an ability to live within the challenge without needing to be ‘on’ all the time, and that is where some of the most poignant learnings have come.

4. Anti-busy time

I think one of the major changes needed in thinking about working in the same physical space is that we need to be busy all day compared to the less structured view of remote working, where we can (ideally) define our own hours.

But, knowledge work – and especially strategic design – needs collaborative reflection: less urgent, more conversational and exploratory moments to allow our sub-concious to process and connect information and for more lateral thinking and sense-making.

Not to mention the value of making time to play and connect as humans outside of a work context.

5. Countering digital order and the predictability of generative AI

Generative AI is set to change so much of all fields of industry, let alone digital innovation. Originality of thought, however, is not going to be a by-product of the adoption of Generative AI which can be so predictable and formulaic.

Digital transformation has already created a more linear, ordered environment, so we need to balance AI’s incredible engine of efficiency with a little pinch of chaos. A small amount of randomness – the kind of randomness that is created when humans come together – is a valuable asset in a highly automated environment as it opens up what Stuart Kaufman calls the ‘Adjacent Possible’.

The Adjacent Possible is the space outside the one we are in now, the myriad different directions that we could follow. That’s why part of any design learning journey should include the weird and extreme users who can throw light into unseen corners of our challenge. Working on an integrated shape management platform, we spoke to a representative sample of dieters, under-exercised office workers, brides-to-be and conscientious eaters. We also spoke to someone who’d had their stomach stapled, an Olympic weight-lifter and I undertook a 2-week Chinese detox (consuming the same foul-smelling potion 3 times a day, and nothing else). There was so much more inspiration and illumination in the weird edges.

As with any change, our mindset goes a long way to predicting how we handle it. Let’s welcome this opportunity to find more ways to connect, to explore and experiment together and let a little ‘controlled chaos’ in the door when we rejoin our colleagues and clients. Here’s to a year of serendipity.

· Boris Eldagsen won the World Photography Organization’s Sony World Photography Awards for a piece titled The Electrician.
· Scientists have developed an artificial intelligence algorithm named M3GNet that is capable of predicting the structure and properties of more than 31 million materials that do not yet exist.
· Alphabet Inc (Google’s parent company) lost $100 billion in market value in February 2023 after its new chatbot shared inaccurate information in a promotional video and a company event failed to dazzle, feeding worries that the Google parent is losing ground to rival Microsoft Corp
· https://kpmg.com/au/en/home/media/press-releases/2023/10/ceos-confident-in-growth-despite-economic-challenges.html
· https://www.afr.com/work-and-careers/workplace/working-from-home-hurt-productivity-but-poor-managers-partly-to-blame-20230615-p5dgyx

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