Bookstore Serendipity: Creativity In The Efficient World Of Amazon

Lance Creativity, Forbes, Ideas Leave a Comment

Originally posted at

To begin, a confession: I am a huge fan of Amazon and everything it is about. I have been a Prime member for years, and I have given Prime memberships as gifts. I marvel at the way Amazon makes everything so easy to do as a customer, whether it is buying, watching, listening, or returning. Amazon has mastered the art of the frictionless sale, and has scaled to unimaginable heights — selling enough 4K TV’s this Christmas to reach the peak of Mt. Everest nine times! — while still retaining the customer experience of a small outfit. With Amazon I watch my movies, listen to my music, stock my pantry, fill up my bookshelves and check off the Christmas lists of my kids — both naughty and nice. This Christmas, my Wife gave me another of Amazon’s wonders: Amazon Echo.

Alexa … is it a great time to be alive?

Sorry, I couldn’t find the answer to your question.

Yes, Alexa. The answer is yes.

Yet, for all of Amazon’s efficient glory, there is one thing brick-and-mortar bookstores like Barnes & Noble can do better: serendipity. Combining the definitions from both and yields a marvelous picture of what serendipity is: an aptitude for making desirable discoveries of things not sought for by accident Note that the discoveries of serendipity are not mere accident. There is a skill in making them, and it is a skill the physical bookstore has over the Amazonian database.

On the day after Christmas, we took our two kids (ages 9 and 11) to Barnes & Noble so they could use the gift cards they received for Christmas. As they camped out in the kids section with my Reading-Teacher Wife, I aimlessly wandered the store. I was not “shopping,” per se. I had no intention on buying anything, and no focused direction for my looking. I was, in the truest sense of the phrase, “killing time,” which is the perfect metaphor for such an aimless and wasteful spending of that most precious of resources, Time.

After meandering through the Science Fiction aisles and walking along the cookbooks and art compendiums, I ended up as I often do in the Leadership and Business Management section. Expecting nothing new, I began running my eyes along the titles, most of which I had already either bought or rejected as sounding uninteresting. Then, right as I was nearly finished with the aisle and ready to go cruise the Science section, my eyes spied a single copy of a smallish book nearly hiding between two larger titles.


What a bizarre title and a whimsical cover … in the business section! As I thumbed through the book, I saw that it was full of what appeared to be hand-drawn doodles on nearly every page of the book, along with bright colorful illustrations throughout. There was even a chapter that appeared to be handwritten in Sharpie on a yellow legal pad. It was the subtitle grabbed my attention: “A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace.”

Gasp! Did I need that!

I flipped the book over, and found none of the blurbs by the names of the hot authors and thinkers that adorn seemingly every leadership book nowadays. Then I looked for the copyright date: 1996.

! ! !

Something about this 20-year-old book that appeared to have been illustrated by my 11-year-old told me I needed to read it. With my surprise find in hand, I headed over to the kids section, waited for my Wife and two kids to make their book choices, paid for our purchases and headed home. By the time I turned out my light to go to sleep, I had finished reading all 224 pages of Gordon MacKenzie’s pure, unadulterated wisdom. Orbiting the Giant Hairball instantly became one of my Top 5 favorite/most influential books that I’ve ever read.

And I never would have found this treasure without wastefully “killing time” in a physical bookstore. A two-decade-old book without any major names behind it just isn’t ever going to surface on my computer screen as I visit Amazon’s super-site. While I have purchased and browsed a wide variety of books on the topics touched upon in Orbiting, it is simply a book unlike anything I have ever read. The efficient database that makes Amazon go thrives on quickly and invisibly pushing to view the connections to things from a user’s past: past purchases, past pages viewed, past searches made. Drawing a customer’s eyes to the truly different and novel is simply not within Alexa’s grasp. Instant delivery of nearly anything you could possibly want is Amazon’s thing. Serendipity is not.

This tale of my surprising buy of the book with the catchy metaphor is, itself, a metaphor as well. This is how Creativity works. The genius that we recognize as Creativity is not the same as the processed and cliched notion of Innovation.  Creativity requires empty space and unfilled time to come into being. Innovation, on the other hand, is Creativity’s corporatized, better behaved, on-demand cousin. Witness, for example, the power of a fully-operational Innovation plan:

1. Strategize and plan: Settle on an agreement of the vision for the initiative that is also in line with business goals. Then establish the resources and budget, and integrate the vision with IT and business plans.

2. Develop governance: Establish a process for making decisions. This includes identifying and engaging stakeholders, agreeing on who is in charge and what the flow for decision making is, and also having feedback mechanisms in place.

3. Drive change management: Have systems by which people can communicate and socialize via multiple channels; get buy-in from stakeholders at all levels; and assess which open innovation initiatives and cultural shifts will help the company optimize contributions to innovation.

4. Execute: Make sure to draw from a wide range of sources to generate ideas for innovations that will transform the business, align the initiatives with business goals, and then update and drive new elements of the initiatives in response to changing business requirements.

5. Measure and improve: Once the innovative initiative is in place, monitor and measure how it has affected business outcomes. It is also important to seek feedback from stakeholders and to continue to study innovation best practices and case studies from other organizations. Also make sure to continually drive improvements through process changes and upgrades.

Or consider the collective thoughts of several CIO’s interviewed and asked about the process of Innovation:

Creating a culture of innovation begins with bringing these different groups to the table to document processes and discover where they overlap or could make use of shared efficiencies. The trend is toward lean operations, which are made possible by a shared consciousness of how best to get there. Lean principles even dictate that representatives of the various organizational limbs meet in the same room.

“Innovation” they may be talking about, but “creativity” they are not. It is only from deep within the “hairball” that the former could be confused for the latter.

To use Gordon MacKenzie’s wonderful metaphor, the efficiently productive notion of “innovation” would be the standardized process of hooking up the milk cows to the milking equipment in the barn. “Creativity,” on the other hand, happens out in the field:

A management obsessed with productivity usually has little patience for the quiet time essential to profound creativity. Its dream of dreams is to put the cows on the milking machine 24 hours a day. … [ignoring] the time the cow spends out in the pasture, seemingly idle, but, in fact, performing the alchemy of transforming grass into milk.

Bringing forth milk from a cow is not creative; turning grass into that milk is.


If real creativity is what leaders want from themselves, their people and their organization — and survey after survey says it is — then it isn’t more efficient plans for innovation and scheduled meetings for ideation brainstorming that is needed. Rather, what is needed is —

• the freedom of empty time to simply think;

• the “wasteful” opportunity to browse ideas, without the requirement that a productive “purchase” be made;

• the safety to investigate the whimsical oddity that is unlike the things that have worked in the past.

If it is true creativity you seek as a leader, then set aside the Lean Management rule book and take the bold steps necessary to build up the aptitude for making serendipity happen.

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