Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Serendipity: "Ah-Hah!"

For anyone interested in enhancing human creativity, increasing the rate of medical discoveries, or understanding how scientists actually make breakthroughs that change our world, I highly recommend Dr. Morton Meyers' book, Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs

To entice people to read this tremendous book, I will offer some comments:

This book reveals the truth about how humans discover, invent, and innovate: through serendipity! In this book, Dr. Meyers draws upon his extensive experiences as a physician scientist to illuminate the reality that human progress does not follow linear, planned schedules. Instead, consequential breakthroughs occur when open-minded researchers go looking for one thing but find another - the definition of serendipity. Meyers' enlightening account of recent advances in science shows that "[d]iscovery requires serendipity. But serendipity is not a chance event alone. It is a process in which a chance event is seized upon by a creative person who chooses to pay attention to the event, unravel its mystery, and find proper application for it" (Meyers, xiii). Great researchers like Louis Pasteur - famous for discovering Penicillin (but not its medicinal application) by accident - "have the insight and creativity to recognize a 'Eureka!' moment when it happens, see the potential, and know what to do to take it to the next step" (ibid). Thus, in the creative realm - the realm of innovation, invention, and discovery - intuition often trumps logic.

In light of Meyers' portrayal of discovery, what could organizations and institutions do to foster and nourish creativity? To start, organizations could create safe opportunities and environments that encourage entrepreneurial, outside-the-box thinking and experimenting. Institutions must maximize trial-and-error solution searching. Stochastic (apparently random yet purposeful) tinkering is a bottom-up process that embraces ambiguity and uncertainty and maximizes our chances of making serendipitous discoveries. In recognizing the non-linear dynamics of humans' creative processes, organizations could create more platforms for people to tinker stochastically: who knows, someone might just stumble upon something new!

Here is a practical application of serendipity to decision making in medicine: "Ah-Hah!" or "Eureka" moments often trigger transitions from searching to acting. 

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