Serendipity and the systems approach

Systematic searching and coincidental finding

The need for serendipity      Serendipity is one of seven possible origins of good ideas (Johnson, 2011; or Ted talk), the other six being: The Adjacent Possible (ideas closely linked to previous ones), Liquid Networks (ideas are like networks and need many connections to occur), The Slow Hunch (ideas may need ripening), Error (noise and error lead to unpredictability and innovation), Exaptation (exploring more uses of already existing ideas), and Platforms (environments where all other patterns of innovation thrive). Interestingly, it is normal for most enterprises to suppress serendipity, not to encourage it. This is mostly to achieve predictability and efficiency gains. So, most management activity concerns routine operations such as quarterly revenue commitments, value chain optimization and management by objectives. This gives a sense of control. But nobody bothers to ask whether these objectives are the right ones. Yet the world is a-changing. New ideas (e.g. by serendipity) are needed to make sense of the world, improve it, or to continue making a profit.

Definition of serendipity     According to Dutch serendipitologist Pek van Andel “serendipity is the art of making an unsought finding”. At its most basic, serendipity is a wondrous observation followed by an accurate abduction. The founder of pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce*, first introduced the term ‘abduction’ as ‘guessing’. After a surprising fact C is observed, one may abductively conjecture that if a hypothesis A were true, C would be a matter of course. E.g. Fleming’s observation that “It was (…) fortunate that (…) I was always on the lookout for new bacterial inhibitors, when I noticed on a culture plate that the staphylococcal colonies in the neighbourhood of the mold faded away, I was sufficiently interested in the antibacterial substance [SH: penicillin] produced by the mold to pursue the subject.” It is likely that many others had observed the inhibition, but none had formulated an actable hypothesis. Peirce regarded abduction as the only form of reasoning to discover something new: in contrast, deduction (e.g. using axioms in mathematics) proves that something must be, that an hypothesis is correct; induction (e.g. hypothesizing laws in physics) shows that something actually is operative (Van Andel, 1994).

*) Peirce’s pragmatism was a key influence on the development of the systems approach by Churchman (Barton, 1999).

Patterns of serendipity       Van Andel hopes to make his full catalogue of serendipities available in the form of a PhD thesis very soon. In it he will present his detailed list of patterns. About these patterns, he says that: “Although my list of ‘patterns’ is just a list and not a classification, it serves to introduce a new and possibly stimulating perspective on the old subject of serendipity.” As early as 1994, he had identified seventeen ways in which unsought findings have been made: 1. Analogy (stethoscope); 2. One surprising observation (leaky pipe –> trickle irrigation); 3. Repetition of a surprising observation (AIDS); 4. Successful error (“bad” glue –> 3M Sticky notes); 5. From side-effect to main effect (antidepressant + drug against tuberculosis); 6. From by-product to main product (first synthetic dye + organic chemistry); 7. Wrong hypothesis (treatment of mania); 8. No hypothesis (nuclear fission); 9. Inversion (anticoagulant); 10. Testing of a popular belief (inoculation); 11. Child, student or outsider (Rubella as a cause of congenital cataract); 12. Disturbance (radio-astronomy); 13. Scarcity (cigarette); 14. Interruption of work (glycogenesis); 15. Playing (impossible triangle); 16. Joke (Walkman); 17. Dream or unconscious creativity (Descartes’ clockwork universe).

Serendipity domains         Van Andel distinguishes four great domains: A. Science; B. Technology; C. Art; and D. Daily life. Most of the examples cited by Van Andel (an experimental ophthalmologist by profession) are in the Science and Technology fields. His example of serendipity in daily life concerns Honda’s marketing strategy for selling motorcycles in the USA, so it would seem the “daily life” domain is rather large, diverse, and of enormous practical value. The “Art” domain is interesting, because it triggered this blog post through an article in my newspaper Trouw of this weekend (February 7, 2015) about the painter Jacco Olivier. Olivier is always on the lookout for serendipity while painting (not unlike Kandinsky, Picasso and many others, by the way) and making pictures of all the intermediate products. You can see a nice film of the “blue whale” installation of Olivier by clicking on the image below:

blue whale, Jacco Olivier

Enhancing serendipity     Van Andel (1994) makes a number of concluding observations about serendipity. One of them sticks out: “Systematic, directed (re)search and serendipity do not exclude each other, but conversely, they complement and even reinforce each other. In practice it is not by design or by serendipity, but rather by design and by serendipity, and/or vice versa.” He goes on to say (Van Andel, n.d.): “Systematic searching and coincidental finding (serendipity) do not rule one another out. They complement and intensify each another. Unintentional discoveries tend to be by catch. Of course, as long as you’re sitting on your bottom, you won’t stumble upon anything at all.”

Serendipity planning      … sounds like a contridictio in terminis, but it is not entirely impossible. Muller and Becker (2012) identified eight skills that could enhance the probability of useful serendipity to work for your company or endeavours: 1. Motion (change you routines and encounter new people and ideas); 2. Preparation (decompartmentalize, take a break to strengthen you ability to see new linkages); 3. Divergence (expand your perspectives to be able to recognize and explore new paths); 4. Commitment (wilfully enhance your ability to choose from widening options); 5. Activation (maintain spontaneity, the mental form of skills 1 and 2); 6. Connection (improve the quantity and quality of chance encounters or observations); 7. Permeability (create a permanent conversation with the outside world); and 8. Attraction (combine all the other skills to somehow attract serendipity).
P.S. This is the third list of patterns, or skills or sources of serendipity in this post. The lists exhibit various degrees of explanatory or practical value. The challenge is perhaps to combine them in a single whole without too much conceptual overlap ….

Serendipitous potential of systems approach  To sum it all up, Van Andel (n.d.) emphasizes that “Chance favours the prepared mind” (Louis Pasteur). “The creative spark of an idea rarely presents itself on a platter. You need to have looked at your own innovation challenge from a variety of different perspectives and have clarity on the problem you’re trying to solve as well as a mind full of both raw material.” My conclusion is that this is quite similar to the systems approach (Williams & van ’t Hof, 2014), which therefore  has considerable potential for applications in the serendipity domain of “daily life” (or human problem situations, including the worlds of business or government planning), because it encourages you to define an innovation challenge, take in a wide range of perspectives, look at matters from practical and ethical angles involving a fundamental, systemic set of questions (or ‘heuristic’, see previous blog posts) that will stir your imagination to its limits. All in all, enough elements to make the systems approach profoundly serendipitous, indeed. If well executed, you are very likely to be very surprised by the outcome. I was, everytime I tried it. “Chance favours the connected mind” (Steven Johnson). It is probably this aspect of ‘connectedness’ that makes the systems approach, both in its ‘sweeping in’ and ‘unfolding’, so eminently serendipitous.

If you decide to give it a go,     …. remember that “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it is hard to be sought out and difficult” (Heraclitus).

  • Barton, J. (1999). Pragmatism, systems thinking and system dynamics. In System Dynamics Conference. Retrieved from
  • Johnson, S. (2011). Where good ideas come from: the seven patterns of innovation. Penguin UK.
  • Muller, T., & Becker, L. (2012). Get lucky: How to put planned serendipity to work for you and your business. John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved from
  • Van Andel, P. (n.d.). Serendipity. Retrieved from
  • Van Andel, P. (1994). Anatomy of the unsought finding. serendipity: origin, history, domains, traditions, appearances, patterns and programmability. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 45(2), 631–648. Retrieved from .
  • Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2014). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03., p. p. 97). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Retrieved from

About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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One Response to Serendipity and the systems approach

  1. Alex Hough says:

    Thank you! A valuable read. Reminded me of this –


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