The Serendipity Effect


What do the following things have in common?

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Coca Cola

Ivory Soap

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Popsicles

Post-It Notes

Silly Putty

Give up?  They were all products of mistakes.  Had it not been for lack of planning, miscommunications, botched experiments or just plain irresponsibility, we wouldn’t have any of them.  (You can read their stories below.)  It’s called the Serendipity Effect, and it happens when you discover something new even though you were looking in a different direction.

But really, that’s oversimplifying the process.  A mistake doesn’t automatically turn into a breakthrough.  Certain conditions need to exist first.

1) An environment of accountability. If the person who made the mistake covers it up, its potential will never be discovered.

2) A blame-free culture. If mistakes are punished and those responsible labeled, it’s next to impossible to get individuals to act with accountability.

3) Individuals empowered to think creatively. Those closest to the mistake need to be able to exercise their possibility thinking when the error is made.  Teach them to ask questions like “What can this teach us?” and “How could we use this?” or “What problem does this solve?”

What would happen if we began to celebrate mistakes on our teams?  How would your team react if the next time they made a mistake, you said, “Fantastic!  I can’t wait to see what we’re going to learn from this.”  Their reaction might tell you a lot about the culture of blame or accountability on your team.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Mrs. Wakefield was making cookies one day at the Toll House Inn and realized she was out of chocolate.  She substituted baker’s chocolate and realized that it didn’t melt in the baking.

Coca Cola

Dr. Pemberton was trying to make a health tonic that would relieve headaches and stress.  (The early version probably did, since it included a derivative of the cocoa plant, and it aided sales as people became addicted to the drink’s effects.)  He took it to Jacob’s Pharmacy and asked Jacob to add water and ice to it, but Jacob accidentally added carbonated water.  The two men tasted the result and decided it would sell better as a fountain drink.

Ivory Soap

While mixing soap one day at the Proctor and Gamble Company, a man responsible for operating the soap-mixing machine went to lunch, forgetting to turn it off on his way out.  When he returned and realized his error, he found that the extra mixing had worked air into the soap.  Assuming that it was a small mistake, he sent the soap mixture on for hardening and packaging.  Within a few weeks, Proctor and Gamble was getting letters from customers asking for more of the “soap that floats.”

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Pisano intended to build a bell tower in Pisa, Italy, in 1174.  However, during construction the soil beneath the tower began to loosen and the building efforts had to be stopped.  100 years later, construction resumed, but the tower began tilting more and more each year.  Even recent attempts to pump concrete underneath didn’t help.  To Pisano, the bell tower was a complete failure, but millions have been to see the tower who couldn’t name even one other tower in all of Europe (okay, maybe one other famous one in Paris).

Popsicles

Frank Epperson was eleven when he accidentally left his soda powder mixed with water in a cup outside his home.  Due to record low temperatures during the night, he awoke to find his drink frozen with the stirring stick still in it.  Many years later, he remembered his mistake and created Popsicles.

Post-It Notes

Scientist Spenser Silver was doing experiments to find stronger adhesives for 3M in 1970.  One experiment was a complete failure.  The adhesive was actually weaker rather than stronger.  Four years later, Arthur Fry, another 3M scientist was having trouble keeping his spot in his hymnal as he sang in his church’s choir.  He remembered his colleague’s weak adhesive and found that it worked terrifically for sticking and peeling off paper.

Silly Putty

The US government needed a synthetic rubber for airplane tires during World War II.  Scientist James Wright experimented with a rubbery substance by adding boric acid, and the result was bouncing rubber.  In 1949, he sold the rights to Peter Hodgson, who then marketed the rubber as a toy.

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Filed under Ideas, innovation, mistakes, paradigm shift

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