Mastering serendipity for leadership

Article by: Valeria Mecozzi
Mastering serendipity for leadership

Peter Mandeno knows a lot about serendipity and human connectivity.


Serendipity is the spark of magic caused by simple chance, a moment in time that cannot be foreseen. More than a simple fluke, serendipity combines chance with acquired knowledge; an accident that creates opportunity. Serendipity, thus, is a capability, and as such must be trained to reinforce its purpose and likelihood of its occurrence.


Peter fell in love with the concept after years of applied design and engineering, “A lot of people think serendipity is luck, but I see it as an outcome, a result of something.”

Born and raised in a small town in New Zealand, Peter Mandeno created opportunities for himself all around the world. Chance encounters and a contrarian spirit took him into disparate directions, from New York, to Amsterdam, to London. He understood that a traditional career path would be inadequate for the living conditions of the future, and delved headfirst into the fields of design, strategy, psychology, engineering, marketing, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

Throughout the years of sustaining this rich and explorative mindset, he came to a realization: “Everyone talks about diversity and invites different perspectives, but will often return to the same places to do the same things and meet the same kinds of people.”

Peter sensed an opportunity: professionals didn’t have a place to meet that was strictly network-focused with the goal to bring in as diverse a group as possible into a room over good food. Networking, by his definition, is the act of building and maintaining a human network, one of the essential components of a successful human experience.

While in New York, Peter experimented with bringing design thinking principles to meaningful networking experiences. He was interested in how simplicity, the ultimate value of design, could be used to engineer human connections. The result? Wok + Wine, a stand-up meet-up for professionals from all kinds of fields to eat jumbo shrimp and drink wine. It has since spread to over 11 global locations and evolved into a PhD research project.

serendipity for leadership

Interested in how simplicity and the value of design could be used to engineer human connection, THNKer Peter Mandeno created Wok + Wine, a stand-up meet-up for professionals from all kinds of fields to eat jumbo shrimp and drink wine.

How did the concept come about?

Wok + Wine was the prototype that took off. I’d been interested in the connection between food and networking, and had tried other types of events prior. For this one, that we only served one type of food and one type of wine came from necessity, but we learned that was our strength. We removed the element of choice, and it gave people the chance to have an uncluttered mind. I call this avoiding ‘The Curse of the Canape’.”

What did you learn from creating Wok + Wine?

That was an example of understanding what the ultimate desired outcome you are designing for, and using everything you can to help achieve that outcome. In this case, it was to create a memorable and well-designed networking event. Attendees found the lack of food choices to be refreshing and liberating, as was having to physically crack open the shrimp with your hands. When everyone is on the same boat it increases connections for having done something together. The closer you can get people to the edge of their comfort zones, the bigger that bond becomes.

What attracted you to this concept?

Serendipity on a whole is quite a challenging topic, but a necessary one. I am inspired from evolutionary biology to Robert Dunbar, who caps the sustainable number of intimate connections to 150. From there, we go into loads of other social network theories. A component of building the Wok + Wine experience was to increase the likelihood of serendipitous connections being made. This was also helped by bringing together people you thought you were looking for, and from all kinds of backgrounds.

So, you were able to design for serendipity?

Absolutely. A shared experience is something that brings us closer together, and those are the conditions for serendipitous occasions. When you design the surrounding environments for that opportunity to arise, you create greater chances for it to happen. In the tech world, we can design for these encounters where all software is based on code – unless you introduce some degree of randomness, as soon as you start designing for a specific moment of serendipity, you lose it.

Serendipity is tricky. The closer you get to trying to describe and define it in a formulaic and forced way, the less likely it is to be magical.

serendipity for leadership
A serendipitous mindset can become a part of a company culture – finding people to take you farther is a highly serendipitous skill. #serendipity #creativeleadership Click To Tweet

How might leaders use it?

Creative leaders can practice open-mindedness by not just embodying it but by guiding employees. A serendipitous mindset can become a part of a company culture – finding people to take you farther is a highly serendipitous skill. If you think in multiple horizons, serendipity can help you lead toward the big kind of pivots that takes the business into one direction and then entirely into another. Don’t stop searching for it as your company grows. Just like culture, keep building on it and growing it and find exactly where you want to focus.

What will you do with these learnings?

I am currently completing a PhD in Design Engineering at Imperial College London. The focus of my research is ‘human connectivity’, within which serendipitous connections are an important component. I proposed a holistic model of connectivity around the triad: Mindset – Connections – Activation. Without the right mindset, unexpected connections are not likely to happen. And the value inherent in those connections is negligible until activated.

I am developing a set of design principles that – when applied to the design of experiences (and potentially products, services and processes) – consistently improve human connectivity outcomes.

How can creative leaders engineer serendipity more?

The mindset to keep is curiosity, willingness to take risks, and being empathic. Activation is relevant because a lot of people think serendipity is luck, but I see it as an outcome, a result of something.

Prepare yourself and your mind to make connections, and then ensure the right kind of people bump into each other. We design for this very well: furniture plays a huge role, because people connect a lot less when they’re sitting.

Ask yourself, “How do I prepare for unlikely connections, how can I place myself in environments that create deeper and more divergent connections?”

To discover how to master serendipity for leadership, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.