Notice the value in interesting accidents

by David Eckoff · 0 comments

An interesting read in HBR: “The Accidental Innovator“. In this Q&A, Robert D. Austin suggets that many innovations are the byproduct of accidents – and that the key is to be prepared for the unexpected.

Examples cited: the microwave oven was conceived when a scientist from Raytheon (where I worked from 1987-1990) noticed a candy bar in his pocket had melted when he was experimenting with a new vacuum tube; saccharin from an accidental chemical spill; and the Daguerre photo process via a shattered thermometer.

But are these innovations really accidental? Austin says:

“The innovation itself can’t really be said to be “accidental,” even though it involves accident. It takes a considerable capability to see the value in an accident, and to build upon it to create even more value.”

Austin put part of his research focus on talking with artists to learn how they approach innovation:

“Artists think they develop a talent for causing good accidents. Equally or perhaps even more important, they believe they cultivate an ability to notice the value in interesting accidents. This is a non-trivial capability. Pasteur called it the “prepared mind.” In 1960, Donald Campbell proposed that we think of creativity as “Random variation + Selective Retention.” That is, we need two processes, one to generate things we can’t think of in advance, and another to figure out which of the things we generate are valuable and are worth keeping and building upon.”

What does this mean for the design of an innovation process? Austin concludes:

“If you think that most breakthrough inventions – blockbuster drugs, say – are arrived at through careful, scientific, deductive process, without accident being much involved, then you’d design one kind of innovation process. On the other hand, if you think there is a very significant overlap between accident and important innovations, you’d design the innovation process differently. You might want to design in some “accidents,” and you’d want to nurture your capability for “selective retention” – your ability to know what to throw away and what to keep.”

Related Link: White Paper: Accident, Intention, and Expectation in Innovation Process

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