Working with others

Serendipity on the back of a napkin

By Andrew MacVean


Encouraging serendipity in the workplace is highly desirable (Florida, 2002). An unexpected exchange of ideas can greatly enhance the creative process.  By its nature serendipity cannot be forced; however, this recipe encourages serendipitous exchanges in a simple, low-cost way. Does the pressure to produce outputs limit serendipitous encounters within your institution? Are you struggling to remove these limitations to chance encounters?

In this recipe, a culture of serendipitous encounter is encouraged and made more probable.  It uses an informal dining environment situated in a heavily populated area. Supplying napkins is normal procedure for tables in a dining area: supplying pens too encourages diners into back-of-a-napkin thinking. Key to this concept is the idea of avoiding the pressure to produce, which can sometimes inhibit spontaneous and creative thinking (Amabile & Kramer, 2011). If no serendipitous encounter occurs, the napkins just clean up any mess! Without the pressure of formal outputs, problems can be simplified, and serendipitous thought and encounters can be informally recorded.



  • Set of railway carriage seats (if you can’t get these, then any seating area arranged to facilitate face-to-face discussion will do)
  • Napkin holders containing napkins and pens
  • Alternatives to napkins are: whiteboard surface material, glass table top, scrap paper pile, small whiteboards
  • Area of heavy footfall


  1. Find an area with heavy footfall with spare space for a few seats.  This will afford the possibility of a maximum number of chance encounters.
  2. Place your railway carriage seats near the area of heavy traffic. Seats should ideally be situated so that diners are not hidden from people walking through the area i.e. do not place the back of a seat facing a walkway.
  3. Provide each place with a napkin holder, well stocked with both napkins and pens.

To encourage diners to use the area:

  1. The seating design must be carefully considered. Seats should be comfortable and give good physical support.
  2. Place the railway carriage seating in an area with additional benefits, e.g. access to toilets, to kitchen for food preparation, views to the outside world. Encourage people to use this space to eat away from their desks. This brings together diverse thought and skill sets. Consider banning technology in the railway carriages, so that people are not ‘wired in’. This can encourage serendipitous conversations and a bit of low-tech sketching.

Notes on ingredients

See the Jump Associates: San Mateo case study for an example of this idea in action. The same use of railway carriage seating is made in the Glasgow Housing Association offices, Glasgow. In this instance, the seating is deliberately isolated from the busy footfall, so that conversations can be more private.


Although closeness is important, there should be a balance between propinquity and privacy (Weeks & Fayard 2007; Fayard & Weeks 2011) depending on what is needed from the seating.

BITE: Recipes for Remarkable Research is available in paperback, hardback and as Open Access from:

Sense Publishers: Paperback | Hardcover | Free Open Access
Amazon: Paperback | Hardcover
Barnes & Noble: Paperback | Hardcover

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