Most innovators understand what serendipity is. calls it “an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.” But have you ever heard of serendipitous network intelligence?

Simply put, serendipity is positioning yourself within your professional network so you’re more likely to learn about new developments, opportunities, people and ideas that may be useful to you. Reid Hoffman, in his excellent book The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career, explains:

“Serendipity comes about when you’re in motion, when you’re doing stuff. Serendipitous network intelligence turns up in similar ways—when you’re engaging people. If you’re in touch and top of mind, someone may forward an email with information that’s relevant just because they’re thinking of you. And, you never know what useful nuggets a person might throw out at a party or over a casual lunch.”

Hoffman suggests there are 4 ways to court serendipitous network intelligence

  1. Keep a few general questions in your back pocket to ask people with whom you meet. “Back pocket questions” are general queries designed to solicit interesting information, such as “What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned over the past few months?” or “Have you come across any awesome entrepreneurs or start-ups that I should invest in?”
  2. Be on the lookout for serendipitous network intelligence from your online newsfeeds. “When you browse a connection’s newsfeed on LinkedIn or Facebook, you aren’t necessarily looking for anything in particular, but you may stumble upon an interesting article about your industry or see that a former coworker has moved to a company you want to work for or learn that a friend has started a business you want to partner with.” Personally, I find that Twitter and Google+ present an endless stream of cool information and ideas that inspire me. That’s based upon following the right people. When it comes to network intelligence, I recommend that you favor quality over quantity, and relentlessly cull people from your lists who aren’t providing enough value. Don’t follow 10,000 people on Twitter. While that may gain you just as many or more followers back, it will create such a poor signal-to-noise ratio that it will become essentially useless as a source of network intelligence.
  3. Personalize your network intelligence: Your friends and contacts are not only a source of interesting articles and news items, they may represent a foot in the door at firms you’re interested in learning more about. Hoffman gives the example of browsing Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” with another browser window open side-by-side where you can view your Linkedin connections. If you don’t have contacts at some of these companies, you may be able to ask for introductions at people who second or third degrees of separation from you within Linkedin. In other words, the “rise of a social web allows trusted connections to act as information curators” on your behalf, Hoffman explains.
  4. Push interesting information out to your network: “Post an article, email a quote, forward along a job offer, and in other ways share small gifts to your network. Your friends will appreciate it, and you will increase the chances that those same people respond in kind and send you intelligence later on.”
    Solid advice. We all like people who pay value to us. So why not take the first step and share something useful with your network of contacts – or, better yet, share something one-on-one with a specific contact who may have a special interest in the blog post or article you’ve just uncovered. It’s simply good online karma!So the next time you start a new innovation project, don’t limit your intelligence gathering to web search engines. Remember: Your network of contacts is a key source of intelligence as well. Cultivating it and taking good care of your network of connections can pay off in unexpected ways, whether you’re preparing to make your next career move or trying to locate a potential partner for a new open innovation initiative.

By Chuck Frey

About the author

Chuck Frey Senior Editor, founded and served as its publisher from its launch in 2002 until the partnership with Innovation Management in 2012. He is the publisher of The Mind Mapping Software Blog, the definitive souce for news, trends, tips and best practices for visual mapping tools. A journalist by trade, Chuck has over 14 years of experience in online marketing, and over 10 years experience in business-to-business public relations. His interests include creative problem solving, visual thinking, photography, business strategy and technology. His unique combination of experience and influences enables him to envision new possibilities and opportunities.