“So the devil sings higher – ‘Oh just look at what you’re doing!’
Yeah, he’s joined by a choir of doctors and statesmen
who plan their sorry lives till their last days’ end.
But look at all the happy things that happen by accident!”
Polly Paulusma, from ‘She moves in secret ways’.
I have written about serendipity and the work of Sebastian Olma before, but here, guest blogger Graham Allcott of Think Productive offers his advice on ‘happy accidents’.
When we think about accidents, our risk-averse brains take us straight to thinking about “consequences” and the mess we’ll have to clear up. When we think about serendipity or happy coincidences, we think only that these things must be magical or that we struck lucky for a day.
But what if you could make your own luck? And what if accidents weren’t bad, but were opportunities to be relished, celebrated and capitalised on?
I’m always inspired by the work of Matthew Herbert, a musician who has perfected the art of exploiting imperfection as part of his creative process. He is a musician and producer who works to a strong and unique artistic formula, laid out in his manifesto, point 5 of which is:
5. The inclusion, development, propagation, existence, replication, acknowledgement, rights, patterns and beauty of what are commonly known as accidents, is encouraged. Furthermore, they have equal rights within the composition as deliberate, conscious, or premeditated compositional actions or decisions.
For Herbert, the ‘planning not to plan’ (or certainly planning to stay open-minded and spontaneous) is a mindset that shifts him out of his pre-conceived notions of what he’s trying to create. This is a useful approach to creativity, to business and indeed to life itself. We are taught from an early age to strive for perfection. However, perfection is a disease. And following worn paths won’t take you to anywhere new.
I think it’s important to be open to random occurrences, to consciously aim for mess instead of perfection and to seek out the unknown, the scary, the strange and the surprising. Perfection can weigh down our productivity, as we fiddle around on the edges of what actually makes a difference to the world. We dot the i’s, we cross the t’s and we miss the fact that the essence of what we’ve already done is… already done. Time to deliver our imperfect thing into the world, ready to receive feedback at the earliest opportunity, ready to change as we go along.
Here are 5 things you can do to cultivate the celebration and utilisation of happy accidents in your work and life:
1. Be open-minded to who you have coffee with, connect with, follow on Twitter and so on. Broaden your network far beyond your niche, your ‘sector’ or your ‘discipline’. Observe how a potter, a taxi-driver and a politician solves problems, and try to think about how they might solve yours.
2. If you’re stuck, make decisions by the throw of a dice. Using a dice can be a great way to force your thinking in 6 different directions, or to the 2 or 3 possibilities.
3. Learn to “ship” early. Steve Jobs used to use the phrase “real artists ship” in the offices at Apple. It would force people to confront the voices in their heads telling them they needed one more week to make it perfect. Avoid perfect, don’t listen to the voices in your head telling you to hold onto and protect what you’ve created. Release it to the world so that it can make a contribution. Now!
4. Think “yes, and…”, not “yes, but…”. Accept your reality and build on it. Funnily enough, this is part of the essence of improvised comedy – when everything is created on the spot, it only works if you’re pretty quickly looking for the possibilities in every scenario. We tend to fix our eyes on an end point too quickly, and it closes down possible options.
5. Renegotiate your commitments. Not everything you’ve committed to on your to-do list is still worth doing. Things change. When an exciting opportunity pops its head up to the surface, you ideally want to have the time, attention and energy to take advantage of it. The trick here is to start making the space before the opportunities even emerge – and to do this you have to say no, even to things worth doing that you’ve already committed to – it’s fine to change your mind. Just be confident that as soon as you create space, something more exciting will land right there.
Finally, it’s worth saying that there’s a fundamental difference between order and productivity. Many people mistake being organised and control-freaky as being the best – or even the only – way to be productive. Whilst it’s certainly true that good organisational systems help, what they really give you is the freedom to react and renegotiate when happy accidents come your way.
Graham Allcott is a business speaker and the founder of Think Productive, which provides productivity workshops to some of the UK’s leading companies. He’s also the author of “How to be a Productivity Ninja”.
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