On 3 September 1928, the biologist Alexander Fleming had just returned to his laboratory after spending August away on holiday with family. Before leaving, he had stacked all his cultures of staphylococci bacteria on a bench in a corner of his lab. On returning, Fleming noticed that one culture was contaminated with a fungus and that the colonies of staphylococci surrounding the fungus had been destroyed. The other staphylococci colonies farther away hadn’t changed. After famously remarking “That’s funny”, Fleming showed the contaminated culture to his former assistant Merlin Price, who encouraged him to grow the mold in a pure culture. What they found was that it produced a substance that killed several disease-causing bacteria. He set his assistants to work and isolated the Pencillium genus from the mold. After some months of calling it “mold juice”, he renamed the substance as penicillin on 7 March 1929, and introduced its value in a medical journal in passing reference.
Serendipity is believed to be a spark of magic that is caused by simple chance, a moment in time that cannot be foreseen, but this is just a part of it. It is a combination of chance occurrence 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. This is the ability that leverages chance: Virtute Duce, Comite Fortuna, to be guided by virtue in the company of fortune.
King Jafer understood that knowledge could create wonderful things when mixed with experience. Creative leadership knows this intuitively – it is closely tied to mastering ambiguity while seeking broad inspiration. The thing we look to is the preparation work that must be done beforehand in a design for serendipity to occur. But what are the steps to take for mastering this capability?