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The value of failure in innovation

Posted by John Bessant on May 12, 2016 10:31:49 PM
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Accidents will happen – and as far as innovation is concerned, that’s a good thing. Whilst much of our attention is on the focused efforts to bring new ideas to market or to effect process changes in systematic, planned and strategically targeted fashion, there are some times when Fate takes a hand. What might appear to be a failed experiment or a strange but ultimately useless outcome can sometimes turn out to be the basis of a game-changing innovation. Think about these examples …

  • Percy Spencer, working on microwave-based radar equipment at Raytheon in 1945 discovered that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted – and made the connection which led not just to a dry cleaning bill but the development of the microwave oven.

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  • Kutol Products was a struggling company trying to sell a paste originally invented in the 1930s for cleaning dirty wallpaper discoloured by soot and coal-fire residues.  By the 1950s changes in  home heating meant that coal fires were on their way out – and so was their business . Fortunately for them their imminent bankruptcy was held off by the discovery by children of the potential for using the paste as a moulding clay toy. Repackaged, Play-Doh persists to this day, finding its way into carpets and furniture in millions of homes around the world.

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  • Roy Plunkett was working on chlorofluorocarbons in DuPont’s labs in 1938 trying to improve refrigeration materials. Returning to examine the results of his latest experiment he was bitterly disappointed to find one canister no longer contained the gas he expected but some white flaky material. But he took time to play with it and realized its incredible properties as a lubricant with a very high melting point – perfect for a host of military applications and, eventually, for making omelettes in frying pans coated with Teflon.

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We could add Viagra, penicillin, cornflakes and a host of others to this list - all of them innovations triggered by accidents, unexpected events – and with unexpectedly successful (eventual) outcomes.

So how might we make use of this observation? Can we ‘organize’ for accidents and mobilize this phenomenon to help us in our continuing quest for innovation? Pasteur’s famous comment that ‘chance favours the prepared mind’  seems a good place to start – so in what ways might we prepare the ground for picking up on ‘successful’ accidents?

Part of the answer is undoubtedly to create an environment in which there is space and time to experiment and fail.  It’s not coincidence that all of those discoveries took place in contexts where the individuals concerned could explore, experiment and accept failure without fear of being penalized. How could we reproduce the experimental freedom of a laboratory elsewhere in the organization?

But another part of the story is recognizing the role of timing in ‘accidental’ innovation. We can see many of these innovations as an extreme version of the old ‘knowledge push’ model in which we create something new for which there is no apparent need or where the intended need isn’t met. It’s only later as an alternative need emerges that the real potential of the innovation comes through – and this different need often comes from a very different direction.

For example metallurgist Harry Brearly was working hard in his lab in 1912 trying to improve the design of guns. He needed an alloy which wouldn’t erode over time as bullets spinning fast along grooved barrels rubbed against their walls – but his efforts proved fruitless. After months next to a growing pile of steel scrap representing failed efforts he noticed one particular piece had managed to retain its original shine rather than oxidizing. He explored this 12% chromium alloy a little further and found it also resisted marks and scratches as well; not very useful in gun-making but ‘stainless steel’ had an impressive future elsewhere.

In 1942 Harry Coover was working in Eastman Kodak labs trying to perfect material for a precision gun sight. But the cyanoacrylate he experimented with was a bitter disappointment – sticking annoyingly to everything it touched. But six years later in trying to use it for cockpit canopies he suddenly realized the incredibly strong bonding powers could have a different application – and Superglue was born. The final version of his product hit the market sixteen years after his original experiments.

And Spence Silver’s non-sticky adhesive didn’t progress very far except as a curiosity within 3M – until a chance encounter with Art Fry led to the need for bookmarks made of Scotch tape which was non-sticky. The rest is Post-Its history.

Which raises the third organizing condition – connectivity. In this world of ‘open innovation’ we’re increasingly recognizing the power of networks and cross-connections but in many ways we are simply rediscovering something we’ve known about creativity for a long time. It’s all about associations, making links and sometimes connecting the apparently unconnected. So to make the most of our accidents we could do a lot worse than make sure they are widely publicized so others know about them and may help us make new connections.

These days chance encounters and lucky meetings can be augmented by a wide range of brokers and bridges, ranging from organizations like HYPE, 100% Open, or Innovation Exchange who act as trusted intermediaries through to innovation marketplaces like Innocentive and Atizo360. But whilst the technology might make linkages easier the underlying challenge remains the same – how to open up to unexpected connections?

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