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Serendipity is a concept based on the random discovery of something that will become a success.


How many times have you found something that you were not looking for  Who has never found his favorite pen under the couch during a move ?

These few questions highlight an essential point of creativity “chance “.

According to an analysis by a professor at an Indian university, serendipity accounts for 20% of innovations and according to thers, would be the main source of innovation 1 and one of the great sources of creativity in business2.


The word serendipity was created on January 28, 1754. It is described by Horace Walpole (English politician and writer, 1717-1797), as defining the talent of these three Princes ».

The “Three Princes” are characters from a Persian tale “The Three Princes of Serendip” published in the twelfth century by the Indo-Persian poet Amir Kousrou Dihlavi. Serendip is the name of Sri Lanka in Old Persian. This tale features three young princes from Serendip who go on a journey and solve problems based on clues they have randomly noted in their path.

In a letter to Horace Mann, ambassador in Florence, Horace Walpole writes that :

Besides, I must tell you a painful discovery. […] This discovery is almost the type of what I call serendipity, a word that says a lot, that I will try to explain to you because I have nothing better to say to you; you will understand it better by etymology than by definition. Once I was reading a stupid tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip”. When the three dignitaries traveled, they always made discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they did not seek; for example, one of them found that a one-eyed donkey had passed the same road because the grass had been grazed only on the left side where the grass was the worst. Do you understand serendipity now ? [..] It should be noted that no discovery of a thing you are looking for falls under this description [..].

It was not until 1875 that this word serendipity was resumed. The bibliophile and chemist Edward SOLLY used it in the Notes and Queries magazine and started it in literary circles. Walter CANNON, Professor of Physiology at Harvard Medical School, imported it into the exact sciences with the chapter Gains from Serendipity of his book The Way of an Investigator(1945).

The observation that chance plays a role when making discoveries and inventions is naturally older than the word serendipity. The famous British physicist Robert Hooke was already writing in 1679 in the preface to his Lectiones Cutlerianae 

“[…] (Most of the invention is a bit of a happy accident outside of our power, and like the wind, the Spirit of the Inventor blows if and when it is relevant and we hardly know where he came from and if he left.) Because of this, it is better to embrace the influence of Predestination and to be diligent during the search for everything we come across because we will soon realize that the number of important observations and inventions collected in this way will be a hundred times greater than what was found by any anticipation.”

Almost a century later, in 1775, the English pastor and researcher Joseph PRIESTLEY notes in the introduction to his “Experiments and observations on different kinds of air” :

“The topics in this volume illustrate the truth of a remark I made more than once in my philosophical texts and which can be difficult to repeat too many times because it strongly encourages philosophical research: indeed we must more to what we call accident, that is to say, philosophically speaking, to the observation of events that present themselves with unknown causes than to any good plan or theory preconceived in this activity. This does not appear in the works of people who write synthetically on these themes, but we see very well, I have no doubt, among those who are more famous for their philosophical sagacity than if they wrote analytically and clever.”

A remark on the role of chance was made by the chemist Louis PASTEUR in his introductory speech of dean of the new Faculty of Sciences in Lille in 1854:

“It was in this memorable year 1822. Ørsted, Swedish physicist, held in his hands a copper wire joined by its ends to the two poles of a pile of Volta. his table was a magnetic needle placed on his pivot, he suddenly saw the needle move and take a position very different from that assigned to him by terrestrial magnetism.A wire crossed by an electric current deflects from its position a Magnetic needle Here, gentlemen, the birth of the current telegraph.”

The American sociologist Robert Merton, inventor of the focus group, pointed out in 1976 that empirical facts help the beginning of a theory. He then gave the most exact definition of serendipity :

“The phenomenon of serendipity concerns the rather general experience of observing an unanticipated, abnormal and strategic datum that becomes the occasion for the development of a new theory, or the extension of an existing theory. First the data is not anticipated. Hypothesis-oriented research provides a product by chance, an unexpected observation that concerns theories that were not taken into account at the beginning of the research. 

Secondly, the observation is abnormal, surprising and incompatible with current theories, or with other observed facts. In both cases, incompatibility prima facie arouses curiosity; this encourages the investigator to look for the data to put it in a broader context of knowledge. [..]

Thirdly, observing that the unexpected fact must be strategic, that is to say it must allow implications that concern a generalized theory, we naturally speak more about what the observer does with the data than about the data itself. Because it clearly requires an observer aware of the theory, to enable him to detect the general in the particular.”

The term was officially recognized at the awards ceremony in 2000: during experiments conducted by a research group to find new polymers, a visiting scientist is wrong in the proportions of a component and puts 1000 times the prescribed dose. Instead of the expected blackish precipitate, it obtains a precipitate with metallic reflections. Electrically conductive polymers are discovered. The noble prize awarded them :

« Your serendipitous discovery of how polyacetylene could be made electrically conductive has led to the prolific development, pursued by yourself and by others, of a research field of great theoretical and experimental importance »3.


« Look for a needle in a haystack and go out with the peasant girl » Julius H. Comroe

« Look for fake and find just » G. Gallezot

Technically, serendipity is the understanding that one has found or discovered by chance, by chance or by accident, something important that one was not looking for.  It’s an ability to discover things by chance.

In fact, discoveries do not really happen by chance. They are made possible because the one who makes these discoveries has put himself in a certain state of mind composed of openness, availability, curiosity, wonder, astonishment, and analogical and symbolic thinking, the one that allows to see what brings together rather than what divides.

Darwin defined serendipity as the “quality” of looking for something and, having found something else, recognizing that what one has found is more important what we were looking for ».

In short, serendipity is the art of finding what you are not looking for

The big kinds of serendipity5

Serendipity 1: Finding something other than what we were looking for

It is a type of serendipity that one encounters when one seeks information on the Internet. Google has a button ” I’m lucky ” and searching for something on the Internet among the X billion indexed pages always leads to finding interesting things that we did not think.

Example : Aspartame

In 1965, the American chemist Searle works on a treatment against Ulcers. In trying to synthesize gastrin, he obtained an intermediate product. History tells that wanting to turn a sheet of his notebook, he licked his finger that was then full of this intermediate product. He discovered that he had a strongly sweet taste.

Serendipity 2: Finding something you were looking for in an unexpected way

It is typically encountered during our problem solving processes where we know the cause but fail to identify a viable and sustainable solution. It sometimes happens that by chance we find a solution.

Example: Inkjet printing

It was an engineer from Canon, Ichiro ENDO, who discovered by chance the principle of inkjet printing. Working in his workshop, making a false move, he dropped his hot soldering iron on an ink syringe. The hot tip then made contact with the neck of the syringe, causing a small splash of ink to escape. Intrigued, he decided to reproduce the phenomenon and used a high-speed camera to understand the operation. He will deduce the principle of the inkjet printer.

Serendipity 3: Finding an unexpected application to something

How many inventors have objects in their garage that they do not know what to do.

Example: The microwave

Percy Spencer was the Raytheon engineer who invented the way to manufacture magnetrons in mass production. By chance, he discovers the heating effects of a magnetron on popcorn, eggs … Raytheon, in search of diversification then starts manufacturing microwaves. Too expensive and too big (the size of a big fridge) is a failure. It was not until 1960 that Toshiba made it a commercial success.

Serendipity 4 : ability to find an idea of innovation

This is the only “true ” serendipity. The serendipity is not delivered “ in the state ” but requires a cognitive operation: imagination …

Example: Velcro

It is a Swiss engineer, Georges de Mistral, who is at the origin of this invention in 1941. He was then intrigued, that at each return of hunting, he found particles of plants (the burdocks) hanging on his trousers . Analyzing them under the microscope, he discovered that they had tiny hooks. From this observation, he created the Velcro.

Serendipity in business

PASTEUR is always quoted as referring to the fortuitous discovery of electromagnetism: “in the sciences of observation, chance only smiles on the prepared mind “. to place oneself on the trajectory of chance is to see the possibilities of occurrences of an event and to move to the right place at the right time. It is primarily an attitude of mind but also a physical attitude.

In the twenties, Thomas EDISON, Irving LANGMUIR and Willis WHITNEY had developed within General Electric a research atmosphere called serendip attitude: it consisted in offering the maximum of freedom to the researchers by solving for them all that was administrative.

To facilitate serendipity, Procter &  Gamble set up in the 2000s a network of researchers in order to be connected with the unforeseen possibilities offered by outside: We estimate that there are 1 and a half million researchers in these fields in the world, which means that for every P & G, there are 200 researchers at least as good. And as 200 brains can invent more things than one, Procter Gamble has put in place a strategy to try to build on these outside layers of innovation.

At Vitadanone, the research arm of Danone, we develop a ” networking attitude “. Find within the company the answer to his question by putting on the Intranet the resources of 8000 frames and a search engine.

Harry BECKERS, who was the central figure in SHELL’s research, had an eye for serendipity:  As research coordinator, we must be the guardian of an open system, safe from bureaucratic domination. The planning of the research must be done in a simple way. It must follow the schedule but it must not become a goal as such. The real ideas to deepen often occur in the shower and real innovations, the so-called quantum jumps, emerge accidentally as someone who, when he wants to pour the liquid of a cup, realizes that this liquid is become solid. The good researcher then wonders what’s going on … The discovery of SHELL’s “Carillon ” polyketon is a good example, but it’s hard to explain to his clients. When too much planning is emphasized, too many people go around the bush without being in the pot itself. In other words, the bureaucrat becomes more and more important and the real search disappears.

Other companies have developed methods to promote serendipity. We find for example :

  • Preserving Objects (TechBox  IDEO) 4
  • The day before: Nokia designed the mobile phone after watching the Venice Beach skaters.
  • Promote the initiative: some companies give free time to work on personal ideas.
  • Close partnership with suppliers.
  • Customer involvement in the product design process.
  • Have a logbook to write down your ideas.
  • The serendipist

    The Greek Heraclitus of Ephèze (550-475 BC) wrote: ” When one does not wait for the unexpected, one does not discover it because we can not find it and it remains inaccessible”

    In his article, Pek van ANDEL gave the profile of ” serendipist 5 . The serendipitists, ENTP  (inventor) profile in the MBTI classification, are observers, curious, extroverted, intuitive, easily distracted, judicious, flexible, having a sense of humor.

    But having an independent mind and unpredictable behavior, they are manageable. They can not be framed in an authoritarian way because their motivation is intrinsic. A maverick, a serendipity-prone, an Einzelgänger, or a “free bird”  He defends his freedom.

    Creative exploitation of the unexpected


    The inflexibility, that is to say the refusal to accept errors, the refusal to change axis of development, etc., is the mortal enemy of the serendipity . Inflexibility is encouraged by all factors of resistance to change. 6 alternative solutions for exploiting serendipitous opportunities

    • Try to implement them inside the company
    • Acquire a structure that can do
    • Create a parallel business
    • Make an alliance
    • Set up a joint venture
    • Sell the idea

    The conditions of serendipity


    Luck certainly favors prepared minds. But, it is not by staying behind one’s desk that one finds ideas. It is by seeking that we find, even if we find something other than what we were looking for. ” The incident could only make sense for someone whose mind was prepared to infer an inference,” Charles GOODYEAR. Serendipity is actually a balanced mix of  Curiosity and  Detection



    Curiosity will make it possible to push searches without a particular vision but simply for the pleasure of searching. In constant and active interaction with its environment, the creative opens to receive the messages . In doing so, he risks receiving disturbing and dissonant information. He admits.

    It is a curious explorer who investigates, on occasion, several territories. He hastens to check what he has been told and tries to find out what was not told him. By definition, the curious is an avid. ” I have no special gifts, all I have is that I’m passionately curious ” Einstein liked to say.


It will allow the click  needed to understand the desirability of an idea. For example, rubber, or rather vulcanization, was discovered at random by dropping a rubbery material on a stove (Charles GOODYEAR, 1839). It’s actually the ability to discover something and quickly make the link to a feature, which has allowed this innovation.

Thousands of people had already seen apples fall before Isaac Newton and none had imagined universal gravitation.


1 – P. Drucker (1985) – Les entrepreneurs

2 – A. Robinson, S. Stern (2000) – L’entreprise créative, comment les innovations surgissent vraiment

3 – http://www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/2000/presentation-speech.html

4 – A. Hargadon (2003) – How breakthroughs happen : the surprising thruth about how conpany innovate

5 – P. Van Andel (1994) – Anatomy of the unsought finding. Serendipity : origin, history, domains, traditions, appearances, patterns and programmability

8 – R. Bean, R. Radford (2001) – Coping with serendipity


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