Provide a sense of belonging: In a physically distanced world, companies are one of the few places for people to connect with others. Companies can consider introducing processes and rituals such as “social roulette” or “random coffee trials”, where people who don’t know each other get randomly paired up across the organization. This crisis can help bring us closer together (as colleagues, as new acquaintances, etc.), because we share a common fear, a common “enemy”. It is an opportunity to bond and to connect more deeply and meaningfully. It reminds us of the essence of what’s important in life, among it being the importance of meaningful connection.
As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Christian Busch.
Dr. Busch is a professor at New York University (NYU), where he directs the CGA Global Economy Program and teaches on purpose-driven leadership, innovation, and entrepreneurship. He is a Visiting Fellow at theLondon School of Economics (LSE) and the author of The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Good Luck.
More on his recent work can be found on his website or on Twitter (@ChrisSerendip).
Quote from Arianna Huffington on The Serendipity Mindset:
“In The Serendipity Mindset, Christian Busch shows us that understanding how serendipity works can change the way we work and live. Drawing from both cutting-edge science and real-world examples, The Serendipity Mindset is a wise, exciting, and life-changing book.” — Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post and founder & CEO, Thrive Global
Thank you so much for your time Dr. Busch! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thank you for having me! I had an experience early on in life that made me realize how quickly life can be over (a car crash) — which instilled an urgency in me to do something in life, to find some sort of meaning given how short it can be. I started reading Viktor Frankl’s Search for Meaning — and was struck by the idea of finding meaning in crisis, in whichever situation we find ourselves. What I realized during this journey is that what I enjoy the most is connecting dots — between people, between ideas — and to see the spark, joy, and meaningful change that can come from it. I started out as a community builder and (social) entrepreneur, and then went more and more into research. What I found fascinating was that the most successful, purpose driven people around me seemed to have something in common: they were able to see something in the unknown, and to turn the unexpected into positive outcomes. People around them would say “they’re just a bit luckier than others”. In short, they intuitively cultivated serendipity, this “smart luck” that’s all about how we react to the unexpected (rather than the “blind luck” that just happens to us). I became fascinated by this — and the question of how a science-based framework for cultivating serendipity could look like. Out of this fascination cameThe Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Good Luck.– a science-based blueprint that integrates insights from across the social and natural sciences; inspiring stories from around the world; and tangible exercises, that help us develop this as both a philosophy of life and a daily practice.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Ah there are so many! One of those that left a mark was in the early days of my first company. Around 12 years ago, when it was mostly an idea, I went to a conference of HR executives. I was there as a speaker, to “inspire the audience with a fresh perspective”. I went up on stage, and talked about our dreams, ambitions, and how it would change the world. Then I walked back to my table. The man next to me just said: “Come to me in 2 months when the venture is bankrupt and you need a job, I’ll hire you.” I asked him what he meant; he said, “look, you’re smart and energetic, but you’re talking about all these ideas without any grasp of how the world and business really works.”
What I learned back then is that portraying a “sense of reality” — in a way, appreciating that the world is tough, etc. — is important in order to pick people up, especially when it comes to new ideas. Else, it just sounds naïve and dreamy. I still believe that most people are winging it most of the time, that nobody has figured it all out. But I realized that I needed to “package” my optimism more along the lines of “I know things are tough, which is why we need…”. As someone who has had a lot of loss and defeat happen throughout my life, I’ve become more realistic about what we can influence and what we can not — but when it comes to those parts that we can influence, given all the cynicism in the world, I still believe that you have to start as an optimist to end up as the real realist.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve always had people around me who have inspired me, but if I had to pick one (in addition to my kind and loving parents, of course!), it would be Harry Barkema, the director of London School of Economic’s Innovation Center. Before I met Harry, I thought I would be able to combine entrepreneurship/business and academia, essentially just splitting my time between the two by building companies and researching at the same time. Harry made me realize that even if I wanted to build a “portfolio” of activities, I needed to commit to one “anchor identity” — else I would never be credible to either side, academia or practice. It was a tough identity-seeking process — but committing to rooting myself in academia, in evidence-based knowledge, and then from there having an impact was one of the best decisions I’ve made so far — it allowed me to find my niche as “the serendipity guy” who’s embedded in research but works with companies to actually make it happen.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Much of my life has been shaped by moments of crisis/despair. Often in the moment, these situations were dire, but in the long-run, they usually had the “death is life’s greatest motivator” effect on me. When I had a severe form of COVID-19 in March (living in NYC has its downsides!), I went back to Viktor Frankl’s “Search for Meaning”. It has been a great reminder that we can find meaning in crisis, and that we are often more resilient than we think we are. The idea — that we need to try to find meaning in the toughest of situations — accepts the current situation as dire. It’s not painting it as rosier than it is. But it also says, let’s look at where we can find meaning, and do something about the situation. That is our response to these situations, there’s our freedom to chose. Other things that usually help me sustain my drive are to have “good energy people” around me; to meditate; and to take the long view (“What will truly matter in 20 years from now?”).
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most successful leaders (and organizations) that I’ve studied and worked with actively develop mindsets and procedures that improve their ability to navigate the unknown — and to cultivate serendipity. What does that mean? Serendipity is all about unplanned positive outcomes that happen because we “see” something in the unexpected, and connect it to something relevant. Our research on inspiring leaders, organizations, and enterprise incubators shows that there are straightforward ways of how we can build a muscle for the unexpected that allow us to create this “smart luck”, like developing a sense of direction while being ready for the unexpected or placing and elevating bets. Applying a serendipity mindset allows us to let go of the old illusion of control that gets instilled into us in schools around the world, and that tells us that we can map everything out — and instead helps us to turn the unexpected from a threat into a potential ally.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The most successful leaders in our research (including a study with 31 of the world’s most successful CEOs) do not pretend they can plan everything — instead, they have a strong compass and are ready for the unexpected. While they often feel the pressure to convey that “one has it all under control”, they know that they are not always in control. Once we let go of the illusion that we can control everything, serendipity, innovation, and creative solutions become possible. In a financial services company, for example, the broader vision was to lift people out of poverty — a key solution to it unexpectedly emerged from conversations, because people knew what to look out for. Or take former Unilever CEO Paul Polman: he takes on a large number of projects that have come to him unexpectedly, but he is intentional about how they fit his purpose to help people who can’t help themselves.
Having a sense of direction — like some sort of principle, or north star, or purpose — allows us to deal with the unexpected, and filter those things that could be distraction. In companies, we can take a bigger problem (e.g., related to the Sustainable Development Goals or a current crisis such as COVID-19) and relate it’s part of our core capabilities.
Instead of pretending that we have it all figured out — and that unexpected solutions are about a loss of control — cultivating serendipity actually is about gaining control over uncertainty. Then, we can all be more truthful to how things actually happen: as Harvard’s Leith Sharp would say, life tends to be a squiggle rather than a straight line, even if we narrate it as if it was a straight line. Legitimizing this in companies goes a long way when it comes to knowledge sharing, trust — and embracing what it means to be human.
Can you share the most common mistake you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
1) Grabbing onto an illusion of control: We all tend to make plans and develop strategies but, in reality, our lives are often shaped by the unexpected, especially in challenging times. If we pretend to have it all figured out, we miss the opportunities that are hidden in the unexpected. Understandably it’s a human tendency to try to control everything. But in time of uncertainty, there are many thing that we can’t — and we might as well focus our energy on what we can control. Turning our fear and anxiety into meaningful use. It will become a new normal at least in the short run that we will have more questions than answers — and we need to get used to it. We’ll need to let go of some of the things that we took for granted. The question is not how to cope with uncertainty, but how to navigate the unknown in a hopeful way — by building a muscle for the unexpected.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1) Focus on opportunity rather than limitation. Once we don’t look at things like budget constraints as an issue, but rather try to make the best out of whatever resources are at hand, the most creative (and serendipitous) solutions emerge. Reconstructed Living Labs, for example developed a low-income education methodology that allows people to develop their own skills, companies, and platforms. The team’s core question when going into a new, resource-scare community is not “which resources are needed”, or even worse, “how can we help” (this question places locals as beneficiaries or even “victims”, and often incentivizes a passive mentality. Instead, they seek to leverage and complement existing assets, looking at them from a new perspective. Often, when we look at the world less in terms of resource needs, and more in terms of creative solutions to problems we have, (perceived) liabilities can become assets. If we inspire this across our organization, opportunities start to emerge from the most unexpected of places.
2) Leverage the unexpected to shape corporate culture. The unexpected can be an excuse to rethink our approach to work, and how we approach life. It can also be an effective way to manifest corporate culture and values. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Best Buy had to make tough choices — they acted based on their values by working with employees and local communities to help them out, even if it had a short-term negative effect on the bottom line. In the long-term, it significantly increased customer loyalty and employee retention and productivity. People felt the company acted based on genuine values. Then-CEO Hubert Joly has a point when he says that our reaction to the unexpected defines who we are. Periods of crisis bring out the best or the worst in people — and often separate real leaders from the rest. People will still ask in the years to come how leaders acted during this period of crisis. This can be a great opportunity to really commit to one’s values, and hone a truly meaningful and corporate culture.
3) Ask questions differently: In one of the studies we did with 31 of the world’s leading CEOs, we found that one of the things many of them have in common is that they constantly ask “why”. It allows them to question assumptions, to see problems early on. It’s the mindset of “we can’t know everything, and we need to re-evaluate constantly”. Once we start asking why, we open our horizon — and often unexpected problems (and solutions) emerge. More broadly, we can use the way we ask questions to seed serendipity triggers, to reach new insights and solutions, and spread this across an organization. Imagine being at a (virtual) conference, and meeting a new person. Many of us might go on auto-pilot and ask the dreaded “So what do you do?” This tends to put the other person into a box that is hard to get out of. Positioning ourselves for smart luck means asking more open-ended questions like “What did you find most interesting about…?” or “What is your state of mind?” Such questions open up conversations that might lead to intriguing — and often serendipitous — outcomes. We can also set serendipity hooks, and cast our net wide. This is about creating memorable or engaging talking points — to open ourselves up to serendipity. When someone asks entrepreneur Oli Barrett the dreaded “what do you do” question, he will answer something along the lines of, “I love connecting people, set up a company in the education sector, recently started thinking about philosophy, but what I really enjoy is playing the piano.” He gives us four “hooks” that allows others to pick and choose the hook that relates to their life and makes it more likely that serendipity will happen — along the lines of “oh, such a coincidence, I just started a philosophy salon, let’s talk!” If we do this across conversations, serendipity starts to happen.
4) Provide a sense of belonging: In a physically distanced world, companies are one of the few places for people to connect with others. Companies can consider introducing processes and rituals such as “social roulette” or “random coffee trials”, where people who don’t know each other get randomly paired up across the organization. An inspiring prompt can trigger meaningful conversation — and often leads to “ahas” and the feeling that one is not alone. It’s the opportunity to develop effective communities — now more virtual than physical — that help us bond and connect (more) meaningfully. This crisis can help bring us closer together (as colleagues, as new acquaintances, etc.), because we share a common fear, a common “enemy”. It is an opportunity to bond and to connect more deeply and meaningfully. It reminds us of the essence of what’s important in life, among it being the importance of meaningful connection.
5) Cultivate serendipity-spotting. In a fast-changing world, new ideas and solutions need to come from all corners of an organization and beyond. How can we incentivize that? For one, companies have integrated practices such as asking in meetings if team members came across something surprising last week and, if so, what can we learn from it? This often requires the psychological safety for people to speak up — for example, in one highly creative company, executives frame the conversation around the idea that most ideas are bad at the beginning. Then, “imperfect” ideas, solutions or processes are used as ways of continuous learning. If we allow people to openly share ideas that did not work out, and what they learned from it, we “normalize” the idea that often experimentation is at the core of surviving in times of uncertainty — and often leads to effective knowledge sharing.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. What have you found in your work?
Interestingly, our work has shown that yes, purpose-driven-businesses can be more successful — if, and only if, they are able to integrate purpose across the organization. (In many organizations, the lofty “purpose” that the CEO purports often does not depict the “Monday morning reality” of employees). There are a couple of ways of how some of the world’s most successful purpose-driven leaders have gone about this:
1) Codify Desired Behavior. Our research shows that purpose is only meaningful if it’s brought to life by behavior and expectations. Successful purpose-driven companies integrate these values into their every-day decision making procedures. For instance, as part of its’ manifesto journey, Danone abolished its sustainability office to highlight that responsible business is a matter for everyone across the organization, not only those in that office.
2) Measure What You Preach: Leaders are often under pressure to deliver on short term (financial) goals, and thus need to overcome short-termism and related incentives. One way to do so is to develop accountability in relation to social and environmental goals, to unite people around purpose and ensure long-term objectives are prioritized over ‘short-term wins.’ However, measurement needs to be complemented by transparency, which creates a level of internal and external pressure to commit to set objectives — and builds trust. Companies do this for example via internal dashboards that hold people accountable to each other.
3) Reward Values-Based Behaviors. Successful organizations in our research incentivize purpose-driven behaviors across their organizations by identifying key employees as “values ambassadors” — people who consistently prove their understanding of set expectations — and reward them accordingly. This type of incentivizing can be done via positive performance reviews, pay raises, promotions, exciting assignments, or the celebration of exemplary work (e.g., at annual conferences). These people can become important “messengers” across the organization. While many organizations focus on the formal hierarchy when identifying these carriers, a more effective approach often involves identifying those that are informally powerful — the people that employees go to for advice, for example. Ways to find this out include mapping the company’s informal networks by, for example, asking employees, “whom do you consider to be a role model when it comes to xyz?”
4) Develop an ownership culture: Appealing to entrepreneurial behavior is a powerful way of shaping commitment around integrating purpose within an organization. Companies such as Inditex, Haier, and Siemens implemented and formalized an ownership culture, for example via equity programs or “idea ownership”. This resonates with the changing mindset amongst employees, particularly younger people, who believe that a job is about more than just income, but should also be a source of meaning and individual purpose.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I’ve seen in my life that despite all planning, the unexpected has usually shaped most of it. One of the reasons I wrote The Serendipity Mindset was that I’ve been fascinated by the question of how we build a muscle for the unexpected that helps turn it into positive outcomes. In a fast-changing world, we often don’t know what kinds of solutions and contributions we will need tomorrow. Then — in the words of Cummins’ CEO Tom Linebarger — we need to cultivate serendipity as an active approach to leading during uncertainty.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!