Serendipity Is… Not Serendipitous

31 August 2015 | Once inputs arrive, the importance of out-of-the-box discipline comes into play. People who are able to look at information from different viewpoints may be able likely to spot an opportunity for a creative outcome which is

  1. out of the ordinary
  2. unintentional
  3. something others have not noticed.

Next, those from different disciplines may have the ability to connect previously discrete pieces of information to solve a problem or to uncover an opportunity. Napier and Vuong (2013) suggest that organisations and individuals who tap serendipity, which is ability to notice, evaluate, and take advantage of unexpected information better or faster than competitors, may build or develop this as an advantage.

But, despite its benefits, serendipity is not serendipitous. The former is a method of making creativity. The latter describes unexpected exploration of an opportunity which seemingly appears out of the blue. For instance, when the exhausted Cannon engineering team, who had been stuck on making easy-and-cheap, disposable copier drums, went out for some beer, a beer can led Canon to the development of aluminum copier drums by analogy [Nonaka, (1991), p.101]. Serendipity – as a method – offers innovation capacity improvement by increasing awareness of the existence of unlooked-for but valuable possibilities (Napier and Vuong, 2013). Therefore, there cannot be such a serendipity-based approach of making creativity that is serendipitous. In reality, although hard to plan, but much of the serendipity-based approach’s outcome is expected, accepting the varying forms and specifics of the emergent outcome.

While it seems that successes of creative performance are most often reported and praised, numerous mistakes and missed opportunities, which may be ignored, are critical for ultimate success. A person able to spot opportunities needs practice in the process and admits how tedious the innovation process may be. Such stories can be learned from champion entrepreneurs in Vietnam who joined a well-known inclusive innovation capacity survey commencing in early 2014 (the i2Metrix, in short) (Vuong et al., 2014b).

Minh Long I is now famous for capacity to bake ceramic and porcelain products at temperature as high as 1,380°C while the best producers in France and Japan can only meet 1,360°C and 1,320°C. Ly Ngoc Minh – founder of Minh Long I – unveils that the success was rooted in an unexpected chance to visit the factory of German kiln manufacturer Reidhammer in 1996. Minh participated the most expensive Abiente Frankfurt Fair, not for selling his products but investigating how world-class ceramic and porcelain were made. He tried to visit Reidhammer but was not allowed to get inside the factory. On the way back to hotel, Minh met a German friend who convinced him to return. After driving hundred miles again, his friend helped Minh eye-witness entire manufacturing process as well as take photos as much as he can. Few years later, Reidhammer installed the hottest kiln in the world in Minh Long I Factory in Binh Duong, Vietnam.

At Vinamit, Nguyen Lam Vien – the inventor of dried jackfruits – learned that frozen jackfruits can produce better fried products by accident. “When the business grew up we had to purchase more fresh jackfruits. To keep the fruits fresh longer we put them in freezer storage. Then we realised that fried jackfruits made from frozen jackfruits tasted much better”, Vien told the i2Metrix researchers. But it was not that easy. Vien and his team had to enter a trial-and-error process in months before knowing how long should the fresh jackfruits be kept in freezer and which level of temperature is the most appropriate.

In addition, Brown (2014) is impressed by the serendipity-based success of Kao Sieu Luc – founder of Vietnamese ABC Bakery – who is making burger buns for all major fast food chains in Vietnam including Starbucks, Burger King, and McDonald. The Chinese-origin Luc was among thousands of Cambodian refugees fleeing to Vietnam to escape the bloody Khmer Rouge in 1979. He knew no Vietnamese word nor how to make bread. Luc started as a flour delivery boy to bakeries and 30 years later people call him the ‘Bread Great Master’. One reason for the title is Luc’s invention of ‘instant’ bread.

Despite not drinking alcohol, Luc imitated fermentation of winemaking in flour-preparation for making bread. Then his fermented flour can be kept in 24 to 36 hours. “Then you bake the flour when you need bread. Its smell and taste are even more delicious”, Luc ensures.

Rare, lucky and probably unrealistic, is the ‘only-one-time serendipitous person’.

Also, to be so fortunate on a first try may in fact dampen resilience to try again after such a windfall. Focusing on spotting opportunity to escape from the other creative disciplines, perhaps, results in a popular mistake in relationship-based and rent-seeking economies, such as Vietnam. That is, increasing the chance of meeting serendipity by trying to enrich information inputs and quickly make decision on any spotted point. That results in a contingent strategy. Even when there are many insightful points, the process that transforms insights and creative ideas into new product, service, and solution still needs a logical connection and a disciplined process of employing methods of creativity. Here, there is a dilemma. People try to collect information as much as possible in order to make well-informed decisions. Meanwhile, if they are lack of methods to digest the information then the more they get the more confused they are. In light of this, the bunch of valuable information is worthless.

There are also serendipitous outcomes but without creativity. For instance, a veteran accountant finds a way to cheat tax collectors and in the process make a lot of money. Although his solution is novel and creates pecuniary value, it is not appropriate. One of the two pivotal characteristics of creativity is not satisfied.

* An excerpt from Vuong & Napier (2014).


  1. Ho Chi Minh city bakery figures out the ABC of burger bun success
    ambodian refugee Kao Sieu Luc explains his struggles and how he came to build up the ABC Bakery that supplies bread to major fast food chains in Vietnam

    by Marianne Brown, The Guardian, Saturday 12 April 2014

    While many foreign residents lament the arrival of global brands such Starbucks, Burger King and most recently McDonald’s into Vietnam, one local family-run business – ABC Bakery – is happily reaping the benefits.

    “We make burger buns for all the fast food chains,” says 54-year-old founder Kao Sieu Luc, gesturing enthusiastically to a wall in his office in Ho Chi Minh City plastered with the famous logos of his clients.

    The business is perhaps better known locally for its bakeries-cum-cafes, of which 32 are located in south Vietnam, and another five in Luc’s native Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The bakery frequently introduces new products, and Luc – who spent two years as an apprentice at a piston factory – often designs the machinery himself.

    “We are always the first. Some other bakeries, they look at the cake, very nice, but they cannot copy because I designed the machine myself,” he says, with a mellifluous laugh.

    Luc’s achievements are all the more remarkable considering his family’s troubled history. In 1979 they were among thousands of Cambodian refugees who fled to Vietnam to escape the bloody dictatorship of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

    Luc’s parents were of ethnic Chinese origin and ran two general stores in Phnom Penh until Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge entered the city in 1975, beginning a four-year reign of terror which cost the lives of as many as 2 million Cambodians.

    Urban residents across the country were forced back to the land, money was abolished and intellectuals ruthlessly suppressed. Eleven members of the Kao family were moved to a collective farm with more than 130 other families in a village far from the city.

    “We grew corn, potatoes, bananas, rice – a lot, but we never had enough to eat,” Luc says. “It was very hard, very difficult because we worked every day, a lot of work, but still there was not enough food to eat.”

    Luc’s father and elder brother starved to death. Some families also faced summary execution for reasons that were never explained.

    “They put up a list of the names and afterwards the families were taken away, not far, and killed,” Luc says.

    “First they killed about 28 families, second time about 30 and the third time only about 10 families – the last time my family’s name was on the list,” he says.

    But on Christmas Day 1978, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia, capturing Phnom Penh two weeks later. In the chaos that ensued, the Kao family managed to escape back to the capital.

    Luc’s niece, Alice Kao Hui Sia, who now works as Luc’s assistant and is a branch manager at ABC Bakery, was 12 years old at the time. She says the only possessions the family had when they set off for the capital was a cooking pot and some rice.

    “We were fighting for the food along the road, and for water. It took a long time to walk, more than one month because we walked and we stopped, we walked and we stopped,” she said. “I was the eldest child in my [immediate] family, my sisters were very small. They were walking along with us, we felt so tired and sad. But we survived.”

    After staying in a makeshift shelter in Phnom Penh, the family decided to make the long journey to Vietnam, again by foot. They arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, in 1979.

    “When we arrived here we had nothing, no friends, no family,” Luc said. “We could speak not even one word of the Vietnamese language.”

    Luc got a job carting rice to market stalls, and later wheat. The family got a stall of their own, where they packaged wheat brought in from the countryside to sell at a bigger market.

    But the family’s trials did not end there. In 1980 they were rounded up to live in one of two refugee camps set up by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

    “You have nothing to do in the refugee camp. In the morning you watch the sunrise, in the evening you watch the sunset, so it was very boring,” Alice says. “That’s why he ran away after just one month,” she adds, nodding towards Luc. “He stayed with some friends and started a business.”

    At first, Luc delivered flour to bakeries, but then decided to build his own oven and bake sweet rolls and sponge cake. At first he packed the cakes on his motorbike and sold them to street sellers; later he built more ovens to sell cakes from his house.

    In 1989 – three years after the Vietnam launched economic reforms, known as “doi moi” – Luc married a Vietnamese woman and founded Duc Phat bakery. Shortly afterwards, he became a Vietnamese citizen.

    Over the next decade Luc took advantage of the new open economy, and made trips to Japan, France and the United States to learn different baking techniques and import machinery. When the couple split in 2005, Luc’s ex-wife took the Duc Phat name, and the ABC Bakery was born.

    Today, business has never been better as more global brands enter the market and sign contracts with ABC Bakery. The company is building a new $4m factory on the outskirts of the city to keep up with demand.

    “This factory will be three floors, one floor for McDonald’s, one for Japanese products, one for the export market,” Luc said.

    But Luc is not interested in international expansion. The most important thing, he says, is that ABC Bakery remains a tightly run, family business.

    “The name is from my three children. A, Angela, B, Bruce and C, Christine – ABC,” Luc says. “All the children studied in Singapore. Now they have come back to help me with the business. I am old, it’s their turn now.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s