That Systematically Unplanned Method

I’ve been thinking a lot about serendipity lately. I realize there might be a bit of a woo-woo attached to the concept, but so what. Besides, I’m fascinated by everything out of the ordinary.

As a lifelong learner of exceptional phenomena, I’d like to take a look at serendipity as a systematic method of finding new solutions. Is that even possible when it comes to this wildchild of a technique?

Stumbling Into Something Pleasant

Serendipity is such a unique term, it doesn’t even have a proper word in my native Finnish. It’s a tough one in many other languages too, and often voted as one of the most difficult words to translate from English.

Language aside, the idea itself isn’t complicated at all – an unplanned, fortunate discovery. According to serendipity means ”the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”. Beneficial sounds great, but what’s all this stuff about leaving things to chance. That doesn’t seem very consistent. Or does it?


There’s More Than Meets a Randomly Lucky Encounter

The controversial thing about serendipity is that it’s systematic in its inconsistency. After researching it a bit more, it seems serendipity isn’t just a coincidence or something unexpected; it’s more of a mindset or a framework.

Here’s how it works: you might start with a specific goal in mind, but come out of the process with a totally different result. After you realize that the outcome might not be what was initially expected, you face the most challenging part – figuring out what this new creation can be used for.

Some of the greatest discoveries and inventions have happened exactly this way, accidentally or by mistake as a result of planned action. Serendipity worked its magic in discovering penicillin, the invention of the Post-it note, as well as corn flakes Velcro and – not so surprisingly, Viagra, to name a few.

But if serendipity is that sneaky, how can we make sure we have the upper hand? Should we stop planning?

If you're waiting for a sign.jpg

The Best of Both Worlds

Don’t be fooled. Using serendipity as a tool doesn’t mean abandoning systematic approaches. Some people call it lateral, holistic or even interdisciplinary thinking. Whatever the name, the key idea is to plan, then take action according to the scheme, but also include improvisation as a tactic. As the plan moves on, you accumulate data and analyze it, which in turn defines your next steps.

I believe the best results come when we are both systematic in our approach and leave room for the peculiar and rare. The ability to let go and not try to overcontrol everything is essential in creative work as well as innovation.

Inspired by all this, my goal is to deepen my knowledge of utilizing serendipity as a strategic method in both my professional and personal life. I’m at the very beginning of trying to learn about the skill. If you have any insights, I’d love to hear about them! And who knows, maybe starting these conversations will lead to new and unexpected discoveries.

Interesting Reads on Serendipity:

David Perell: How to Maximize Serendipity

Nick Shockey: Serendipity in Research: Let's Not Leave It to Chance

Naresh Kumar Agarwal: Towards a Definition of Serendipity in Information Behaviour

Lori McCay-Peet and Elaine Toms: The Process of Serendipity in Knowledge Work