The accidental innovator

Companies spend billions of dollars every year on R&D, yet penicillin was conceived from a forgotten dish of bacteria, photography from a broken thermometer and the microwave from a melted candy bar. But seeing the value in these accidents and turning them into value-creating innovations takes considerable insight.

by Harvard Business School Working Knowledge
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Robert Austin, professor of technology and operations management at Harvard Business School, studied artists to find out how they achieved 'reliable innovation'. Many of them deliberately created accidents by altering their creation process and force themselves out of their "cone of expectations and intentions".

"A potter showed me how he would create beautiful pots and then, while they were drying, whack them with a stick," says Austin. "Sometimes they just broke, but other times he'd get an interesting shape that he'd never seen before and make a whole series based on that new shape."

In the same way that artists develop a talent for causing good accidents and notice the value in them, managers should cultivate new ways to go about innovation. Donald Campbell's model suggested we think of creativity as "random variation (the accident bit) + selective retention (which ones yield interesting results)".

"In business, there's a saying that goes 'if you don't know where you're going, any map will do'," says Austin. "But if you are trying to get outside what you can anticipate in advance, if you are going after the truly new and valuable, this way of thinking can be a problem." In other words, managers should try to redesign their innovation processes, away from the well-travelled routes to allow some of these serendipitous accidents to take place.

Source: The accidental innovator
Sarah Jane Gilbert
Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

Review by Emilie Filou

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