Outsights And The Pursuit of Serendipity


The shape of ideas

James Webb Young was a copywriter at the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson in the USA. Beginning in 1912, he was in and out of the agency for 52 years, and was a major intellectual influence on it. In 1940 he published a refreshingly slim book (weighing in at a mere 50 pages) entitled A Technique For Producing Ideas. Given the extent of its rhetoric around anything to do with ideas, it remains bizarrely neglected by the advertising industry yet in its pages we find some of the wisest, and crucially the most useful, writing on the subject of ideas:

"An idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events"

Young’s specific focus of interest was of course the development of advertising ideas. Yet amidst the rhetoric and jargon we so often get from ad agencies, marketing and brand consultants, this is a practical and probably blindingly obvious definition that we can work with. 

This notion of the combining of different worlds or spheres of knowledge has been echoed more recently in the work of the psychologist Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his analysis of the creative process and individual, Csikszentmihalyi saw creativity as drawing from what he termed ‘domains’ . These were self-contained man-made patterns and categories of order and knowledge. Each one of these multitude of domains - whether it is for example, flower arranging, risk management, aerodynamics, bricklaying, software programming, or photography - represents a coherent body or reservoir of powers and possibilities. And we can in turn think of creativity as being the act of drawing from and combining these different domains and their constellations of methods, devices, understandings and practices. 

The trap of narrowness

If we depend on the outside world for ideas, then we should be cautious of too much focus and narrowness.

The Silicon Valley entrepreneur and former chief technology officer of Cicso Systems Judy Estrin has recently warned of the damage that narrowing horizons, over-focusing on short-term rewards and an aversion towards risk-taking has done to the long-term competitiveness of the USA in the global economy.

If we remain too near the centre of things or never move from it, we will never be able to see the edge - never mind what lies on the other side. 

There’s an old advertising agency gag - when people talk to themselves, we call it madness. When businesses talk to themselves we call it marketing. The industry of ‘consumer insight’ (conveniently invented by the market research industry) seemingly compels business and organizations to devolve ever deeper into the behaviours and attitudes of people.  The language surrounding the exercise speaks of ‘drilling’, ‘uncovering’ and ‘revealing’ those precious gems of understanding that qualify as ‘insight’. Whatever that might be.  

There is of course nothing inherently wrong with this - as long as it is just one perspective that the organization takes. On it its own however, and without a broader sense of context, it invariably leads to an ever greater narrowing of focus and understanding. Revolving in ever tighter, ever decreasing circles, in the end the business sees only ‘consumers’, not people. And it sees only moments of purchase and consumption, not broader lives, interests and preoccupations. As Judy Estrin has argued: “It’s hard to think broadly and go beyond incremental improvement when the mantra of the organisation is focus, focus, focus.”

The problem with much so-called insight is that it is fundamentally introverted, and condemns a business or organization to being divorced from the very stuff of ideas, cut off frommaterial from the outside. This trap is one that P&G recognized they had fallen into. As  the former CEO of Proctor & Gamble A.G. Lafley and the management consultant Ram Charam openly confess in The Game-Changer:

“P&G needed to look at consumer more broadly.  It tended to narrow in on only one aspect of the consumer--for example, their mouth for oral-care products, their hair for shampoo, their loads of dirty clothes and their washing machines for laundry detergents.  P&G had essentially extracted the consumer out of her own life (and, at times, a particular body part as well!) and myopically focused on what was most important to the company - the product or the technology.”

In other words, taking a broader perspective on people liberated the company to find new and meaningful opportunities for innovation. Lafley and Charan go on to note that P&G has since learned to go beyond the ‘consumer‘ and their interaction with their brand or product - and to develop an appreciation and understanding of them as a real, three-dimensional human beings - their lives, responsibilities, family relationships, and aspirations and dreams for themselves and their family.

So if we embrace the immutable truth that ideas are new combinations, combinations of previously unrelated fields, and if we are to encourage broader perspectives, new frames of reference and new sources of inspiration, we should probably start encouraging the pursuit of outsights, rather than insights.

Staying alive

The quest for dynamism and growth compels us to be connected and participating in the outside world. 

Thermodynamics refers to what it calls ‘closed systems’. These are systems that are isolated and closed off from their surrounding environments. The Second Law of thermodynamics describes the tendency of these closed systems to ultimately reach an end state of equilibrium. This is the point at which the system has worn down, done its work, and has exhausted all its capacity for change and dynamism. 

The most obvious exception to this law is life itself. Living systems are open systems that are active partners with their environments. Their systems stay open to, interact with, and adapt to their surrounding environment. They’re open to outside stimuli. And it is this open-ness that provides them with the ability to change over a period of time in response to the environment. 

The organizational expert Margaret Wheatley has applied this knowledge of how the natural world organises itself to thinking about how businesses and organizations remain vital and dynamic: 

“To stay viable, open systems maintain a state of non-equilibrium, keeping the system off balances so that it can change and grow. They participate in an active exchange with their world, using what is there for their renewal. Every organism in nature, including us, behaves this way.”

We can think of language as a living thing, an open system. This is why the English language operates in a state of constant flux and innovation. The Global Language Monitor (GLM), a San Diego-based linguistic consultancy, reckoned that on 21 March 2006 there were about 988,968 words in the language, "plus or minus a handful".  And so “to Google” now appears in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The necessity of open-ness has relevance to how businesses organize themselvess too. Cass R. Sunstein, Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago concludes that: “Organizations  and nations are far more likely to prosper if they welcome dissent and promote openness.” Organisations  - and individuals - then, must find ways of staying porous, of accessing the outside world, letting it into their hallways, offices, and conversations.

And the truth of the matter is that it is easier than it ever has been in our history – provided one has the will and desire – to open ourselves up and let the world in. Whatever the pitfalls and potential shortcomings, technology now makes available to us more data, information, knowledge, images, ideas, points of view than our parents could ever have dreamt of accessing. We can search purposefully. Or we can wander and browse aimlessly. Once upon a time one might have had some half decent excuses for not being open. The outside world was a long way away. It took a long time to get there, or for it to come to us. It was expensive and the province of the privileged. Today however, we click, and the outside world floods onto our screens. There is no longer any excuse for not being open.

There are many businesses out there in the world that are exactly what they profess - they are “consumer/customer- focused”. These are often precisely the same businesses that  - for all their focus on the customer – may one day find themselves woefully out of step with the times, out-manoeuvred by more agile organizations, or repositioned and rendered redundant by competition from completely outside their immediate category and reference points. A focus solely on Inside knowledge ultimately commits an organization - and individual for that matter – to being a closed, not open system, to the eventual fate of equilibrium, not dynamism.

Purposeful serendipity

The world teems with ingredients and possibilities. Crucially, we can - whether as individuals or organizations - be purposeful and deliberate in our quest for inspiration, rather than leave it to chance. If we are interested in the broader world around us, if we engage with it actively, if we pursue passions and interests beyond the necessities and demands of the every day, we stand a better chance of developing something new and interesting.

The chefs Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal of the restaurant The Fat Duck, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se, and the writer Harold McGee are all at the forefront of what one might call the science of cooking – understanding the nature of ingredients, their interactions, and how cooking  processes work. In 2006 they put forward what they termed ‘the international agenda for great cooking’, and while its focus is food, it could well serve as the agenda and manifesto for anyone in the business of ideas and creativity:

“We believe that today and in the future, a commitment to excellence requires openness to all resources that can help us give pleasure and meaning to people through the medium of food. In the past, cooks and their dishes were constrained by many factors: the limited availability of ingredients and ways of transforming them, limited understanding of cooking processes, and the necessarily narrow definitions and expectations embodied in local tradition. Today there are many fewer constraints, and tremendous potential for the progress of our craft. We can choose from the entire planet's ingredients, cooking methods, and traditions, and draw on all of human knowledge, to explore what it is possible to do with food and the experience of eating.”

This advocacy of openness to all the world’s resources, methods and traditions and of the drawing upon on all human knowledge is precisely what is at the heart of any creative enterprise, whether in a restaurant, a laboratory, studio, or an advertising agency.  Ideas are born of combinations, of bringing together hitherto unrelated domains, so and interest in and engagement with the broader world is fundamental to creativity and successful idea creation.

Just as Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller and Harold McGee advocated an open-ness to all the world’s resources, the adman James Webb Young wrote of this need to be constantly accumulating raw material from the world to bring to bear upon the creation of ideas:

“The process is something like that which takes place in the kaleidoscope... It has little pieces of coloured glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometrical patterns. Every turn of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationship and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations.”

Feeding the kaleidoscope, ensuring that we increase the chances of ‘striking combinations’ at every turn is a powerful visualisation of how creativity requires stimulating and sustaining. The more we are open to the raw material that surrounds us, and the new creative possibilities that they carry, the greater the chance of something new arising. 

A great advocate and example of this open-minded way working was Louis Pasteur, who made many important discoveries through the practice of diligent observation. In 1851 he famously declared that “in the field of observation, chance only favours the prepared mind.” Indeed accidental discoveries have played a very major role in the search for new drugs,  with no less than 53 serendipitous discoveries having been catalogued in modern drug research.

In an altogether different field, Annie Dillard in her extraordinary book The Writing Life, reminds us that our technical and emotional resources are the limits of what we may accomplish. She cites the painter Paul Klee who maintained that “You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox.” Says Dillard:

“The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.”

We can of course choose how varied our literal or metaphorical paintbox is. The more we invest in it, the more possibilities we have at our disposal. 

Mastering the technique and craft of our chosen domain is an important first step in developing our paintbox, as is embracing, understanding and appreciating its achievements. But of course we can and must go further. 

The more we cultivate an interest in what lies outside our domain, the more we open ourselves us to new possibilities, to new and exciting combinations. 

Specialising in the investigation of uncertainty and probability, Professor Nassim Taleb has observed that you have to work hard “to let contingency enter your working life”. I call it purposeful serendipity. All that watching of TV, going to the cinema, reading books unrelated to our immediate line enquiry, web surfing, staring out of windows, hanging about drinking tea, eavesdropping on other people’s conversations… all that absorbing, participating and engaging in the outside world has a purpose. Indeed it is a necessity. 

The world is open to us, a vast, teeming marketplace filled with a simply bewildering array of ingredients, and we have the freedom to select from it whatever we wish. We just have to be interested, and open our eyes. As the choreographer Twyla Tharp has put it: “Everything is raw material. Everything is valuable.”

Journeying to the edge

If ideas represent the import of new material from outside domains, then the implications for both individuals and organisations in the pursuit of creativity of all kinds should be obvious.  Like the medieval missionary in the so-called Flammarion woodcut who found the point where the sky and the Earth touched, we must organise ourselves to travel to the edges and explore new domains. We must train and cultivate minds that have an interest in the outside world. 

Because if our source of inspiration is only ever limited to the output of our peers and competitors, with their awards and case studies, and if we only ever focus inwards, on ‘consumers’, industry-defined categories and frames of reference we’ll eventually land up firmly in a place where the sun doesn’t shine.  


Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Judy Estrin, Closing The Innovation Gap: Reigniting The Spark of Creativity In A Global Economy, 2009

Hugo Kubinyi, ‘Chance favours the prepared mind – from serendipity to rational drug design’

Lafley, A.G. and Ram Charan. 2008.  The Game-Changer

Cass R. Sunstein, Why Societies Need Dissent

Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life

Lafley, A.G. and Ram Charan. 2008.  The Game-Changer

Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership And The New Science: Learning About Organisation From An Orderly Universe