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Research Shows a Serendipity Mindset Could Aid Entrepreneurial Success

Research Shows a Serendipity Mindset Could Aid Entrepreneurial Success

Marshall professor Christian Busch finds strategic value in leveraging the unexpected into opportunity.

Desk table with pen and journal and a lit light bulb, signifying new ideas

How someone turns the unexpected into a positive outcome is what Professor Christian Busch calls The Serendipity Mindset.
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Can you intentionally make your own luck? Nurturing your Serendipity Mindset — turning the unexpected into opportunities — can propel innovation and entrepreneurial success, according to decade-long research from Associate Professor of Management and Organization CHRISTIAN BUSCH.

“Blind luck, which just happens to us, is passive. But serendipity is active,” Busch said. “It’s the luck that you create based on how you react to unexpected moments and how you cope with unexpected moments.”

Before entering academia, the associate professor was an entrepreneur who co-founded Leaders on Purpose, a research collaboration focused on developing purpose-driven leadership. While observing how leaders cultivate purpose, Busch saw firsthand that cultivating serendipity became “a mindset that you can learn,” and develop as part of an individual’s skillset.

Serendipity doesn’t happen merely by chance, but it is something we can influence — it’s the interaction between chance and human agency. Busch contends it’s an open mindset that observes, connects, and molds a situation or occurrence as it unfolds into a new opportunity.

As an inventor at 3M was working to develop a strong glue, he unexpectedly recognized that a weaker adhesive could result in a different, but useful product — the Post-it Note. Serendipity.

In another instance, a luggage company worker noticed one person in an airport pushing a heavy item on a wheeled skid and another dragging a heavy suitcase before having a “thunderbolt” idea — the rolling luggage. Serendipity.

While individuals may plan things to follow a particular pathway, the unexpected often occurs. How someone turns the unexpected into a positive outcome is a strategic life skill according to Busch’s research. Intuition is at play, but several common denominators emerged empowering his research team to build a science-based framework.

“Once you look at serendipity as a process rather than as an event, you can create more serendipity ‘triggers’, learn how to connect the dots, and then, you can actually influence the outcome,” Busch explained.

Triggers and Associations

Highlighted in a recent published paper in Springer, Busch, along with his co-author, detailed a pattern featuring three key factors that underlie the serendipity process: a trigger (a person making an unexpected observation), a bisociation (linking the trigger to something relevant), and enactment (cultural and structural features that connects the dots to achieve an unanticipated outcome).

Serendipity is active luck. The luck that you create based on how you react to unexpected moments and how you cope with those unexpected moments. 

— Christian Busch

Associate Professor of Clinical Management and Organization.

Triggers help individuals recognize the unexpected and could arise from extroverted and introverted behaviors, alertness, positive emotions, self-awareness, or the interplay of these soft skills, the team found.

“The beautiful thing about triggers is that we can train ourselves in some of them; we don’t have to master all of them. It’s really just step by step,” Busch added. “I think curiosity is a nice one because curiosity is something that also makes us more humble and connects us more meaningfully with people.”

Biosociation advances the trigger and makes the mental linkage between the problem and the solution, aided by creativity and collaboration.

Having the ability to “see opportunity in the unexpected more clearly,” as Busch contends, depends on the individuals’ life experiences or corporate culture of the organization. Connecting the dots may come naturally or something that is encouraged. Conversely, an entrenched decision-making process or inherent bias could limit how someone reacts to any situation.

Busch believes that many of these abilities are initially influenced by our environment, but they can be shaped by individuals — it comes down to nature and nurture.

“It really depends on where you are in your life, what state [of mind] you’re in, what context you’re in,” Busch said. “It almost doesn’t really matter what kind of serendipity happened, what matters is that you’ve created that prepared mind so that serendipity can happen.”

Strategic Skill

The researchers determined the process could be replicated and cultivated, and focused on the role of serendipity in entrepreneurship and innovation. Their findings suggest how proactive decisions — by either the individual or organizational environment — can produce positive outcomes from unexpected events.

By understanding the process, entrepreneurs can create the conditions necessary to recognize trigger events and capitalize on the connection cues, spurring innovation and advancement toward mission goals. Accelerating serendipity, then, can become a strategic advantage for entrepreneurial success.

“If we can help people build a muscle for the unexpected, to essentially see that not as a threat, but to constantly think about, ‘could there still be some meaning in this?’” Busch added. “Then, we realize that when one door closes, there’s 20 other doors that we can walk through.”

A German native, Busch was selected as one of Germany’s “Top 40 under 40” from the country’s business magazine, Capital Magazin. His research, which became the basis for his best-selling book, The Serendipity Mindset, has appeared in publications including the Journal of Management Studies. You can watch Busch explain The Serendipity Mindset in episode three of the Marshall Minds faculty video series, available on the Marshall YouTube channel.