Managing the Unexpected in Innovation

PDW - AOM 2022

Where do great discoveries come from?

Aug 6 2022 from 9:00AM to 11:30AM (Seattle time / "Hybrid" option available)

Interested participants should pre-register by emailing by July 17, 2022. (limited number)

Speakers and Facilitators:

Arnaldo Camuffo, Bocconi U.

Stefano Brusoni, ETH Zürich

J.P. Eggers, New York U.

Chengwei Liu, ESMT Berlin (VIRTUAL)

Jacqueline Lane, Harvard U.

Madeleine Stefanie Rauch, Stanford U. & Copenhagen Business School

Christian Busch, New York U.

I'll be hosting a Professional Development Workshop (PDW) titled "Managing the Unexpected in Innovation: Toward an Understanding of the Discovery Journey " at this year's AOM Annual Meeting (both in-person and virtually).

The workshop will bring together a diverse array of perspectives, such as scientists' and inventors' cognition and decision-making, how organizations learn from failure and serendipitous events, and how fault-tolerant and incidental learning can help face societal grand challenges.

In the first part (panel) an inspiring group of seven invited leading scholars will introduce different topic areas and present the future of the research, sharing their experience working in the field and clarifying the boundaries between what we know and what we do not. In the second part (pre-registration required) participants will be accommodated in an interactive roundtable format (“research incubator”) chaired by the seven invited speakers and aimed at nurturing early-stage ideas and research projects*.

Please find more information below and please feel free to contact me in case you have any questions.

*One virtual roundtable will be chaired by Prof. Chengwei Liu. All the others are in-person.

About the topic

Unexpected events are intrinsic components of innovative activities, processes that by their idiosyncratic nature, have likelihoods that are impossible to foresee.

Scientific creativity is associated with search processes that are “ill-defined” (Klahr and Dunbar 1988), with the initial state poorly specified, and the goals ambiguous. Many great ideas, scientific discoveries, and game-changing inventions happen thanks to unplanned events like fortuitous coincidences or multiple failed attempts. Yet, exactly because they are not easy to plan or foretell, most management literature assumes these events should be avoided or limited. For instance, failures tend to be considered errors or mistakes, whereas there are contexts where they can be valuable. Similarly, serendipity and uncertainty are constantly minimized, yet they are integral parts of how individuals search, learn, memorize, and forge the structures of novel ideas.

This PDW aims to advance the debate on how organizations can better manage and capture value from unexpected events when they are supposed to be embraced rather than avoided if we want to accomplish breakthrough ideas that can benefit society. Specifically, this workshop focuses on two key domains: innovation failures (i.e., managing and capturing value from unexpected adverse events) and serendipity (i.e., managing and capturing value from unexpected positive events).

The invited scholars will first introduce the main arguments and then facilitate various roundtables in the form of "research incubators". Participants are recommended to join with a preliminary draft of their research projects, research ideas, or novel methodological approaches. The organizers will collect the main insights in a report to outline future research agendas and collaboration opportunities.

Topic Areas

Individual & organizational decision-making in the discovery process.

Arnaldo Camuffo, Bocconi U.

The goal is to explore how individuals and organizations make decisions in contexts where failures are frequent, unexpected events happen, and there are no clear directions. How do scientists and inventors make decisions? How can unexpected events be incorporated into the decision-making? What are the biases and heuristics affecting the decisions? What are the processes behind scientific reasoning? Are they different from the “non-creative” search processes?

Uncovering the role of cognition and emotions in change events

Stefano Brusoni, ETH Zürich

This topic area will discuss the cognitive aspects and emotional reactions to change. Change events entail uncertainty and hence they are likely to lead to failures. What happens when people face these situations? What enables some individuals to overcome the negative emotions that might be related to failed attempts to pursue novel behaviors? What kind of emotions are associated with failures and serendipity? Can serendipity trigger a positive emotional response that stimulates search?

Unexpected adverse events: fault-tolerant learning in innovation

J.P. Eggers, New York U.

While most theories on learning from failures are based on the assumption that failures should be avoided, this topic area will try to discuss the concept of fault-tolerant learning and how to enforce the ability to learn during innovation activities by bringing the critical aspects of managerial cognition. How do organizations learn in a discovery process? How do they engage with negative feedback? How can they better engage with failures to pursue novel ideas and avoid rejecting them? How do innovation failures differ from traditional operation failures? Does it make sense to think about “aspiration level” when failures are so frequent to be the default option? How can innovation failures be valuable?

Unexpected positive events: serendipity and incidental learning

Chengwei Liu, ESMT Berlin

The main objective of this topic is to explore the ways theories of learning in innovation incorporate the role of chance in science and inventive activities. As Louis Pasteur used to say, "Chance favors only the prepared mind." In particular, "serendipity" is considered the mutual interplay of effort, luck joined by alertness and flexibility (Denrell et al., 2013). In this perspective, serendipity can be regarded as "happy accidents" that can stimulate incidental learning, resulting from unplanned or unintended consequences, which should be differentiated from the most commonly studied problem-oriented learning. What is "serendipity," and how can organizations embrace "serendipity" in learning? How can innovation failures create emergent opportunities for incidental organizational learning? What determines the apparent differences in luckiness?

Unexpected positive events: studying serendipity with field experiments

Jacqueline Lane, Harvard U.

Is it possible to build organizational processes to “engineer” serendipity? This topic will debate the role of team composition, characteristics, knowledge, and information sharing in influencing the opportunity to capture value and generate novel innovations from serendipity. Moreover, it will also be discussed and proposed using and applying field experiments as an empirical approach

Serendipitous inspirations and responsible innovation: a qualitative study

Madeleine Rauch, Stanford U.

In this topic, the invited scholar will briefly illustrate a qualitative case of how serendipity is experienced and framed inside an organization, inducing an unplanned shift toward a responsible purpose. This will open the discussion on when serendipitous innovation may or may not be responsible. What is the role of scientific freedom and the ultimate “search for truth” in pursuing socially impactful research?

How serendipity and fault-tolerant learning help face societal Grand Challenges

Christian Busch, New York U.

Solutions to complex societal issues often are impossible to map out in advance, and often emerge from unexpected encounters, mistakes, and “failures”. How can companies develop the ability – and individuals the skillset – to “cultivate serendipity” for innovation and impact, and help tackle grand challenges?

How to participate

The first part (the panel session) is open to all. The second part of the workshop (60 min) will be open to pre-registered participants only. Participants will be allocated to roundtables (“research incubators”) before the event based on their expressed preference, profile, research interests, proposed inputs, and order of registration. Each research incubator will be chaired by one or more invited speakers and will cover a specific presented topic area. There will be the possibility for one “virtual” roundtable, based on expressed preferences.

Each research incubator will include one (or more) of the following activities: (1) ideas generation, providing opportunities for brainstorming; (2) ideas validation, discussing, assessing, and collecting feedback from proposed ideas; (3) ideas implementation, finding potential co-authorship opportunities, validating methodologies, and boosting the development of research projects.

Interested participants should pre-register by emailing by July 17, 2022.

Registration emails should include the following information:

(i) name, affiliation, and current position;

(ii) one facilitator/topic area preference;

(iii) research interests and/or reasons why they are interested in the workshop, including types of inputs planning to bring to the incubators. Examples of inputs that participants can bring to the research incubator are (but are not limited to): a research project currently under development; an early-stage research project idea to engage in preliminary debates; competencies and expertise; a proposal of data or novel methodological approaches; a set of well-defined research questions. In particular, participants in bringing and proposing their inputs should think about questions such as: What are the main theoretical gaps and limitations of our current understanding of the topic? What are the empirical challenges? How do you think this topic should be addressed?