Intentional Serendipity — An innovator’s divining rod or something better?

Picture a divining rod, and some great images come to mind. They usually include a weathered old man, holding a Y-shaped stick out in front, as he meanders through the woods looking for water, gold or a treasure. His hope is set on finding something hidden, and of great value.

The official term is actually ‘dowsing’. Dowsing is a type of divination used in attempts to locate water, metal, gemstones, or other rare or valuable objects without the use of any scientific apparatus. Dowsing is considered a pseudoscience, and there is no scientific evidence that it is any more effective than random chance. The concept dates back at least to the 1600’s when Samuel Sheppard wrote the poem, Virgula Divina.

“Some Sorcerers do boast they have a Rod, Gather’d with Vowes and Sacrifice, And (borne about) will strangely nod, To hidden Treasure where it lies; Mankind is (sure) that Rod divine, For to the Wealthiest (ever) they incline.”

Even the theologian, Martin Luther knew about the practice of dowsing in 1518 and warned that it broke the First Commandment. Not only was it pseudo-science, it was pseudo-biblical.

Perhaps a step above the days of dowsing is what Corey Ford calls “The Drunken Walk” during his TED Talk at TEDxUNC. Corey is a well recognized innovator and entrepreneur, and a Managing Partner at Matter. Martin Luther probably wouldn’t have been anymore thrilled with the idea of extolling the virtues of a drunken walk, than he would have been of dowsing. (Although history leads us to believe Luther may have abstained from dowsing but may hav taken a drunken walk or two during his day. Just sayin’.)

Or perhaps it was Peter Skillern, the Professional Learning Educator for the YMCA in Toronto that provided the better insight on how to find something of great value. He said it was ‘intentional serendipity’.

“Getting to where ideas can find you!”

It’s the innovator’s version of playing in the traffic. You put yourself in a situation by intention, that allows you to experience different ideas, people, businesses, cultures, food, building. Those inputs, those new stimuli, will lead you to a new idea, or a better idea. Your intentionality (and willingness to displace your personal discomfort or awkwardness) allows you to find something of great value.

Eureka !

I love being able to use that word. It makes me feel like a real scientist. It is that moment when the insight occurs. It is when the near-sighted cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, bumbles onto some keen insight or solution.

Can an innovator better their odd’s of finding that new treasure if they create purposeful moments of intentional serendipity into their work? In contrast to the pseudo-claims of dowsing, the claims of intentional serendipity are compelling.

Scholars like Tina Seelig, Ph.D would lead us to believe so. She teaches courses on creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design ( at Stanford. She helps us understand that artists and scientists are the ‘noticers’ in the world. We notice things. We notice the correlation between things. We notice the analogies than connect things.

Practicioners of Intentional Serendipity have a holy boldness about their work. They greet new opportunities with an adventurous spirit. They expect to find the unexpected. And they put themselves, (or allow themselves to be put), in the most unlikely places with the hopes of finding the treasure. Pseudo-science or Science?

At the Innovation Engine at Carolinas HealthCare System, we are such believers in Intentional Serendipity that we even schedule our serendipity, as oxymoronic as that may sound. We make time in our busy schedules to allow serendipity to occur. Our monthly breakfast club meeting with other innovators from across Charlotte is informal, yet it allows us to glean ideas from manufacturing, car racing, food preparation, designers, and doctors.

We venture out on “Field Trip Fridays” and put ourselves in non-healthcare locations to learn by analogy, and hope intentionality will allow us to ‘get to where the great ideas can find us’. It could be the Food Bank, a Hackathon, a Rescue Mission, a Financial Institution or a Major Utility. We are like 4th graders again, squirming on the school bus, off on a grand adventure, on a Field Trip Friday. And we have never failed to come home without a treasure. Every time we take a field trip, we remind ourselves, ‘we should do this more often’. And so we do.

We’ve learned to invite folks over for some southern intentional serendipity, y’all as well. We may admire your success in an area, your knowledge about a new field, your connection with one of our friends in social media, and we will have you over to look for treasure. For all we know, your divination rod may work better than ours, and perhaps you can lead us to areas we have never thought about.

We’ve met with all sorts of companies from Fortune 50 companies to eager start-ups barely consisting of more than two guys, a garage, a business plan and a box of chinese food. We listen. We listen intently. And we listen with intentionality. We know we will learn something, and together we may discover something.

And if all else fails, we can still buy a dowsing rod. No joke. I just checked on Amazon tonight, and they have them in stock. And some qualify for Free Shipping.