Serendipity catches the wave

Sometimes innovation can arrive when you’re looking for something else, but to make the most of it, you need to be ready to identify it and ride it as far as it will take you. 

Innovation is often serendipitous

In his book, How Innovation Works, Matt Ridley identifies serendipity in his list of the essentials of innovation.  He is referring to the fact that many significant innovations have come about by accident during the process of trying to invent something entirely different – a serendipitous discovery. “Sometimes inventions result from unexpected events and the ability to recognise these and use them to advantage” , he says.  To illustrate his point he uses the example of Roy Plunkett, who in 1938, invented Teflon entirely by accident.  He was trying to develop an improved fluid for refrigerators when the chemicals he used became solid. Undetered, he worked on this solid and it went on to become the coating for non-stick pans and Goretex clothing and was used on board the Apollo missions to the moon. 

The value of school-to-school work

In our work there are at least two aspects which could be identified as serendipitous. The first occurred when we started our work as part of the London Challenge and proposed to our peers that we intended to identify leaders of outstanding schools and train them in how to capture their knowledge and share it with their less successful peers.   


At the time, this innovation of ours met with great scepticism from the limited number of head teachers with schools rated outstanding by Ofsted in London.  They could not see how they would benefit from sharing their knowledge with their less successful peers. They forcefully argued against giving away the hard earned secrets of their success to their peers who they were often competing with for staff, grants and even students.  What was in it for them?


For the few of our colleagues who did join us and take up the challenge of sharing our knowledge with our peers, we could sympathise with their point of view and we knew it would be an onerous task. However, we believe it would benefit the London school system, even if there appeared to be little return for our own schools.  


Thus, it came as a surprise to us to find that as soon as the outstanding headteachers who we had selected had been trained and started the programme, they said they thoroughly enjoyed working with their peers.  Not only that, but by:



… they considerably improved their ability to understand the reasons for their own actions and articulation to others.  The result had an immediate impact on their school’s ability to manage its knowledge, which led to improvement in their students’ performance.  This unexpected consequence created what some refer to as a win-win situation; a gain for the supported and supporting school.


As this serendipitous consequence of working in this way slowly became known to the other outstanding headteachers in the City, they started to join us, as did their less successful but ambitious peers. Momentum was built for knowledge sharing in this way and it soon spread across the Capital.  As time went on, research showed us that the gain for the supporting school was often greater than for the one it supported. This underlined the value to those who initially gave up their knowledge to their peers without expecting anything in return.


Meeting by chance

Unlike Roy Plunkett who serendipitously discovered Teflon whilst researching for something else, we are not dealing with elements in our innovation but with people. These colleagues have knowledge that we would benefit from. Thus, critical to our success is how these connections are made in the first place. Our analysis shows that a lot of this is by chance. It’s serendipitous


To give you a flavour of this from my own work, if I had not:



… and so the list goes on of chance meetings which have had a major impact on my work.


These serendipitous meetings became such a common reason for the progression of our work that we searched for an analogy to describe them. We settled upon going surfing. For, to go surfing you need to buy or hire a board, get to the beach, swim out into the surf, then find a wave to ride on. It’s also helpful if you are reasonably fit and can swim. Not all of the waves will be great so you will have to back off before they break. Sometimes the sea will be so rough or calm that you cannot surf at all. However, on most days there will be at least one good wave or maybe two and on more occasions than you expect if you are on the right beach at the right time and fully prepared, the big wave will come along and you will make it all the way to the shore.


So invest in improving your networking and social skills, go out and meet people and make the effort to work with colleagues you wish to collaborate with.  Accept that not all these connections will be productive.  In time don’t be concerned if you feel you have learnt what you can and need to move on.  Just be open when you do it. You never know, you might need their help sometime in the future. One day you may well find that you have met someone you can enter a long-term collaboration with, the outcome of which has a lasting positive impact upon your students’ learning. 




We hope that this year we can all again enhance our virtual world and move physically beyond the confines of our schools.  When you can go back to surfing the real world of collaborative learning and see the results in the achievement of your students. 


Finally, I would like to thank Dame Jasmin Bevan, Rita Bugler, Sir Jon Coles, John Cyr, Mike Dubeau, Diane Fyfe, Dame Sue John, Richard Lockyer, Phil Perry, and Professor Bruce Shore who as a result of us meeting serendipitously have shaped my career for the better. 


Take care and stay safe