Zemblanity: the inexorability of unfortunate discoveries

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We have all experienced serendipitous moments in life, the unexpected discoveries or fortunate occurrences that happen by chance. Serendipity occurs when you stumble upon a first edition novel by your favorite author at a car boot sale, or bump into an old friend who you then realize could become the fantastic business partner you’ve been looking for.

However, there are many times when we will also experience the opposite manifestation of serendipity: zemblanity. Zemblanity is an unlucky discovery that occurs by design. By understanding such unpleasant, but predictable events, it becomes possible to manage their incidences.

Serendipity versus zemblanity

Many of the greatest inventions have occurred as a result of serendipitous circumstances. Scientist Percy Spencer invented the microwave after noticing that a candy bar in his pocket melted when he stood next to an electromagnetic wave generator. In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming went on holiday but left out a petri dish containing staphylococcus bacteria.

On his return, he saw that penicillium mold had developed on the dish. Most importantly, there was a clear ring free from staphylococcus around each area of the mold. This led to the discovery of penicillin, the first true antibiotic. 

Even children can make serendipitous discoveries. In 1905, soft drinks made by stirring powder into soda water were popular. Aged 11, Frank Epperson mistakenly left his soft drink outside on the porch with a stirring stick still in the cup. As a result of cold overnight temperatures, the following morning Epperson found he had created what we now call a popsicle.

The word serendipity is derived from Serendip, the old name for Sri Lanka, a lush, tropical island in the Indian Ocean. Serendipity’s antonym, zemblanity, was first coined by Scottish author William Boyd in his 1998 novel Armadillo.

Zemblanity takes its origins from Nova Zembla, an archipelago of Arctic islands that was once the site of Russian nuclear testing, strongly contrasting the beautiful Serendip. 

Whereas serendipity describes a pleasant surprise or unexpected discovery, zemblanity depicts an unlucky, but predictable discovery. In both etymology and meaning, zemblanity and serendipity are polar opposites.

The strange case of organizational zemblanity

We will all experience zemblanity throughout life. Some events are impossible to stop or prevent, despite being predictable. For example, learning that your grandmother has died is an inexorable, yet still unlucky, discovery.

Zemblanity occurs not only in our personal lives, but in a professional capacity, too. It can be particularly destructive if it strikes on an organizational level in the workplace.

As zemblanity describes an anticipated but unwanted outcome, it can be hard to imagine why actions that are predictably destructive might be exercised in an organization. However, it is not uncommon for poor decisions to be made despite knowing that they will bring an unfortunate outcome.

In 2019, psychologist Professor Antony J.W. Taylor found that, despite it being hard to imagine researchers having destructive intentions, there are incidences in which it is clear that damage will be caused, but the act is carried out regardless. In 2009, a technician working in the Antarctic deliberately damaged laboratory equipment by driving a truck into it.

It was found that the technician was working under extreme conditions and, despite knowing he might face repercussions, damaged the equipment in an attempt to preserve his sanity.

Other forms of sabotage have occurred within research teams for financial, political, or personal reasons. Researchers Luca Giustiniano, Miguel Pina e Cunha and Stewart Clegg showed that, despite systems being in place to reduce risk, individuals within an organization can still create their own misfortune while putting others at risk.

The 2012 Costa Concordia disaster is a tragic example of a vicious cycle of poor decision making that led to 34 deaths. After sailing too close to the shore, the Costa Concordia struck rocks before partially sinking.

What happened, exactly? The captain had taken the ship off course to salute the Isola del Giglio. Rather than issuing an order to abandon ship upon hitting rocks, the captain instead lied to passengers and the coastguard. While the captain made disastrous decisions, the crew had such belief in the hierarchy of the ship that they followed his orders despite knowing that his actions would result in catastrophe.

In this case, organizational zemblanity occurred with both the reckless choices of the captain, and the crew’s failure to refuse to obey him.

Many data scientists believe that the analysis of large data sets can lead to serendipitous discoveries. However, researcher Ricardo Peraça Cavassane argues that by feeding large volumes of information into a data set or model, “zemblanitous findings” will occur as a result of linear causality. The interaction of factors means that the outcome is predictable, and can therefore be identified beforehand.

For example, in public and private security, biases will necessarily occur when linearly combining crime data. A vicious cycle occurs in which higher crime levels are expected in impoverished neighborhoods with minority ethnic groups. The police presence here increases accordingly, leading to a greater proportion of crimes being detected. Because complex societal dynamics aren’t taken into account, the discovery of crimes becomes inexorable.

Zemblanity affects not only public and private organizations, but individuals as well. You may regularly provide personal data for online shopping, to enroll on professional courses, or to get an insurance quote. The more data you part with, and the less secure it is, the greater your chance of being involved in a data breach or leak. Despite this, many of us continue to freely give away personal information, hoping that it will never be us who is hacked — effectively building our own zemblanity machine.

How to deal with zemblanity

As instances of zemblanity can, by their nature, be predicted, there are ways to manage them. Here are three practical strategies you can implement to deal with zemblanity:

  • Learn to accept zemblanity. Sometimes, unlucky or unwanted outcomes are inexorable. We will all experience loss, death, unhappiness or dissatisfaction that could not have been avoided. At these times, it is vital to have the right systems in place to take care of your mental health and manage the aftermath. This might involve getting help from friends or family, seeking counseling, or finding ways to turn adversity into advantage by supporting your personal growth through the challenge. 
  • Practice self-reflection. Using a journal to reflect on the situation will help you to become more aware of when unlucky outcomes are created by design. Your reflection should also involve consideration of whether the outcome occurred because of your own actions, the behavior of those around you, or a combination of the two. It’s also helpful to consider whether there is evidence of professional or personal self-sabotage, as learning to manage this will help to avoid preventable, unwanted events.
  • Write a post-mortem. When you identify an instance of organizational zemblanity, create a post-mortem to examine what happened, and which signs you should have been aware of, and share it with your team. Increasing your professional awareness of the precursors to organizational zemblanity will help you to mitigate the worst consequences in the future.

Zemblanity is the opposite of serendipity, meaning that it is an unlucky or unwanted, but predictable, event. Although it might be difficult to imagine someone behaving in a manner that could be predicted to cause harm, zemblanity can occur as a result of complex human and organizational factors.

In an organization, zemblanity can lead to particularly unfortunate outcomes that can have detrimental impact on employees, their clients, and the wider public. By learning to accept that zemblanity will occur, and by practicing self-reflection and critically reviewing instances of zemblanity, you can better manage similar situations in the future.

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