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Posted on: Sunday, 10 January 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Every time I sit down in a meeting where ideas for the next generation of software products are thrown on the whiteboard, I cringe. Something seems fundamentally wrong about the image of a team of nerdy scientists, coming together in a dimly lit meeting room, to conceive and implement ideas which change the world.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his thought provoking book, The Black Swan challenges this whole idea and introduces the idea of serendipitous discoveries. He explains:

If you think that the inventions we see around us came from someone sitting in a cubicle and concocting them according to a timetable, think again: almost everything of the moment is the product of serendipity. The term serendipity was coined in a letter by the writer Hugh Walpole, who derived it from a fairy tale, "The Three Princes of Serendip."

These princes "were always making discoveries by accident or sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of."

In other words, you find something you are not looking for and it changes the world, while wondering after its discovery why it "took so long" to arrive at something so obvious. No journalist was present when  the wheel was invented, but I am ready to bet that people did not just embark on the project of inventing the wheel (that main engine of growth) and then complete it according to a timetable. Likewise with most inventions.

Take this dramatic example of a serendipitous discovery. Alexander Fleming was cleaning up his laboratory when he found that pénicillium mold had contaminated one of his old experiments. He thus happened upon the antibacterial properties of penicillin, the reason many of us are alive today (including, as I said (earlier), myself, for typhoid fever is often fatal when untreated).

True, Fleming was looking for "something," but the actual discovery was simply serendipitous. Furthermore, while in hindsight the discovery appears momentous, it took a very long time for health officials to realize the importance of what they had on their hands. Even Fleming lost faith in the idea before it was subsequently revived.

In 1965 two radio astronomists at Bell Labs in New Jersey who were mounting a large antenna were bothered by a background noise, a hiss, like the static that you hear when you have bad reception.

The noise could not be eradicated—even after they cleaned the bird excrement out of the dish, since they were convinced that bird poop was behind the noise. It took a while for them to figure out that what they were hearing was the trace of the birth of the universe, the cosmic background microwave radiation. This discovery revived the big bang theory, a languishing idea that was posited by earlier researchers.

If you think on the lines of Taleb, every innovation in the field of computer science, ranging from the creation of MS-Dos to the building of twitter, does seem like a serendipitous discovery with only one a few things in common:

  1. Their builders were playing around with technology and were involved with projects which were nothing more than what can otherwise be described as 'fun projects' when, as a matter of chance, they bumped into something which was capable of taking a life of its own.
  2. They were not afraid to fail - as a matter of fact, they failed multiple times before the serendipitous innovation which set them apart from the other mere mortals that walk planet earth.
  3. When they bumped into a serendipitous discovery and saw what they had bumped into, they worked hard for years to turn it into a concrete implementation with a real existence. 

The next time you find yourself in a meeting where new ideas for changing the world of software development or redefining how people do business are being thrown on a whiteboard, remember this - the harder you try to desperately innovate ideas in a meeting room, the crappier your ideas will be.

Maybe you should just cancel the meeting and go for a walk. Maybe you should just get back to working on that side project and have fun like a child. Keep your eyes open and be on constant lookout for serendipitous discoveries that take a life of their own. Keep jabbing, keep opening your IDE, and always be on the lookout for bird-poop. When you find the idea worth chasing, work hard - consistently. Rest of it should just workout over time.

I wish you good luck.