Accidental Innovation

Harvard business school professor Robert D. Austin is writing a book on reliable innovation and shared some of his findings in a HBS Working Knowledge interview last week. He takes a look at how some big accidental discoveries such as anesthesia, cellophane, cholesterol lowering drugs, cornflakes, dynamite, the ice cream soda, Ivory soap, NutraSweet (and several other artificial sweeteners), nylon, penicillin, photography, rayon, PVC, smallpox vaccine, stainless steel, Teflon came about and what are key factors allowing accidents to happen and realizing value in what could be considered chaos.

It takes a considerable capability to see the value in an accident, and to build upon it to create even more value.

Discovering completely new ideas is all about getting outside a cone of expectations and intentions to create something new. My favorite example cited was an artist creating a beautiful pot and whacking it with a stick during the drying process to see what interesting shapes might form. He knew what a beautiful pot looked like, but he was also willing to experiment and recognize something new that might happen in a way he didn’t expect.

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