Serendipity, Error, and Exaptation

think outside the box

(Kachanovsky, 2017)

            Innovation comes in all different forms.  In some cases, it can be serendipitous, others an error can lead to it, and exaptation could also occur.  Understanding what each of these categories of innovation is important as they have led to key breakthroughs impacting our lives.  In better understanding, each of these terms as they related to innovation an example is also given to help put it into context.

What is Serendipity?

            According to Scofield (2011), serendipity can be loosely defined as a happy accident. Better rationalized serendipitous innovations happen in an unplanned manner (Björneborn, 2017).  Innovations that are serendipitous tend to play a key role in how we discover, explore, and learn in different areas of life (Björneborn, 2017).

Serendipitous Innovation?

            An example of a serendipitous innovation was the pacemaker discovered by Wilson Greatbatch (Biddle, n.d.).  This occurred when Wilson took a 1-megaohm resistor out of a box to use on a heart-recording prototype (Biddle, n.d.).  He realized the circuit that it created for him produced a signal that sounded for 1.8 milliseconds, and then had a 1-second pause which could be regulated to create a pulse (Biddle, n.d.)

What is Error?

            Error is also known as a mistake that is made to discover something (Salinas, 2016).  Errors can be referred to rule out the ways in which something doesn’t work but at times can lead to new innovation and generating new ideas (Salinas, 2016). At times these mistakes can lead to bigger innovations then originally sought out (Salinas, 2016).

Innovation Found by Error

            Post-It Notes were an innovative creation that was found by error.  This was found in an attempt to create a strong adhesive for the aerospace industry (Graham, 2014).  What resulted was a week adhesive that was originally rejected by 3M until 5 years later when another Chemist found a need for putting the week adhesive on paper, to not stick permanently (Graham, 2014).


What is Exaptation?

            Exaptation is known to be a form of innovation that occurs through the theories of evolution (Sol & Ranjan, 2014).  At times this time of innovation can come from standards and models that have existed for a long period of time (Sol & Ranjan, 2014).   The resulting innovation will stem from adaptation made over time leading to a new unknown outcome (Sol & Ranjan, 2014).

Innovation Found by Exaptation

            The microwave has been a popular innovation that occurred through exaptation.  In the case of the microwave, the magnetron was an adaption for radar technology but turned into a process for reheating food (Hagey, 2016).  This device was originally developed during World War II-era for radar technology (Hagey, 2016).


            Innovation can come from exaptation, errors, and serendipity at any given time.  Throughout history, we have seen all types of innovative items change our lives. It is likely that through these means new innovations will continue to shape our society into the future and beyond!


Graham, W (2014). 3 reasons why Post-Its became an iconic office product. Business Insider. Retrieved from

Björneborn, L. (2017). Three key affordances for serendipity. Journal of Documentation, 73(5), 1053-1081. doi:

Biddle, S. (n.d.) The 10 greatest (accidental) inventions of all time. NBC News. Retrieved from

Hagey, T (2016). Exaptation.  Beacon Center. Retrieved from

Kachanovsky, N (2017). Think outside the box. Retrieved from

Salinas, R (2016). Why real mistakes lead to bigger innovations. Innovation Excellence. Retrieved from

Scoffied, D. (2011). Serendipitous Innovation. Forbes. Retrieve from

Sol, D. and Ranjan, A (2014) The evolution of Innovativeness. Science Direct Retrieve from

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