Serendipity, discretionary energy, and the Harlem Renaissance

Cultural history and the stories of the non-famous and the not-very-famous interest me because they often illustrate the value of two important but often underestimated human and social dynamics: serendipity and discretionary energy.

Earlier this month, I visited Harlem in search of any remaining landmarks or buildings associated with the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance refers to the flowering of Black American culture during the 1920s in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest; it was at its most energetic in the black neighborhoods of Manhattan. Unfortunately, many of the original buildings are gone, so we could only stand at an address and imagine the vibrant events that once happened there. (Speaking of addresses, my tour guide told me that half-addresses, such as 2294½ Seventh Avenue, where the Harlem nightclub Small’s Paradise once stood, indicated a place that had been a speakeasy during Prohibition.)

Cultural history and the stories of the non-famous and the not-very-famous interest me because they often illustrate the value of two important but often underestimated human and social dynamics: serendipity and discretionary energy. These days, we’re bombarded with stories about purpose, intent, planning, and goal-setting. The economy is or isn’t going according to plan, the military is developing a new strategy, the new CEO will head in a different direction to revive a struggling company. And yet, no matter how much plans and strategies accomplish—and it’s a ton—they cannot command individuals to commit their discretionary energy to a project, and they can’t produce serendipity at a moment’s notice.

Much of what is special about human society happens in the spaces that lie outside of control, planning, or other actions of governments and large organizations—what my colleague, John Hagel, Deloitte Services LP, would call the Edge. That was certainly the case with the Harlem Renaissance. It had no director and no script, but it did benefit from the discretionary energy of thousands of individuals pursuing what was most important to them, individually and as freely formed groups. Their serendipitous interactions accumulated and, without benefit of a master plan, supported the emergence of great American writers and musicians, including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, and even George Gershwin.

Unlike messy communities and cultural movements, businesses and government organizations usually seek predictable results and reliable outcomes. They don’t intend to stifle discretionary energy or obstruct serendipity, and yet they nevertheless do throw up obstacles. Some of these stifling actions seem inevitable, such as the codification of best practices to insure consistent and presumably excellent performance. Others, however, have always seemed to me to be unnecessary, self-inflicted wounds. Organizations, for example, tend to respond to individual mistakes by imposing general rules for everyone. Such rules tend to narrow the field of play without necessarily addressing the real causal factors behind the mistake, if indeed they can be identified. And of course, we are all familiar with how organizational silos reduce the possibility for interactions among different disciplines—in other words, the potential for serendipity.

Although I think the benefits of encouraging serendipity and discretionary energy are self-evident, there is an even more compelling business case to be made. The late Marshall Berman, a philosopher, urbanist, and native New Yorker, described our modern age as one where we find ourselves in “perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction … in which all that is solid melts into air.” Although it’s only natural to react to such turbulence by working harder to preserve stability, organizations also need to allow space for experimentation and chance. The discretionary energy and enthusiasms of your workforce can lead to serendipitous breakthroughs, thus producing the resilience and adaptability that organizations most need today.

So what should organizations do? First, I would say, consider the value of “not doing.” Every new regulation and procedure should have to pass the “discretionary energy” test. How much freedom does this new rule take away from employees? Is the overall trade-off worth it? Second, welcome the carriers of new ideas. The Harlem Renaissance was fueled, in large part, by the arrival into Manhattan of tens of thousands of Black Americans migrating from the southern United States. Cultural entanglement led to creative outcomes. The US workforce today is witnessing the arrival of millions of new entrants—many of them, of course, Millennials, but also veterans and immigrants—who bring with them new ideas and fewer preconceived notions. Large organizations tend to reward those who adapt to their corporate culture as quickly as possible. Slow that process down. Give them the space to improvise and jam together. Who knows? Serendipity might happen.

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