Jul 10

Oops! The importance of accidents in innovation

Just reading through the MIT sloan review I came across an article about how some of the most important innovations have come about as the result of an accident. The article goes on to say that there are good reasons for this as generally new things can be hard to create due to habits, routines and presumptions. Accidents can break us out of our previous thinking and move us to a new place. Whether it is a cure for small pox or the discovery of an interesting side effect of a potential heart medicine now known as Viagra, accidents have played an important part in bringing many new innovations to light.

To prepare for the article, the writers talked to innovators in a number of fields—from design to manufacturing to fine art—who make a point of seeking out “accidents” and incorporating them into their work. They found that there are a number of practical strategies that can help managers leverage accidents into innovation such as:

Hire creative people and mix them up together

Give them unexpected assignments to keep their creative juices flowing. Expose members of your team to different industries or send them on conferences with experts from a different scientific area

Push the envelope. Explore the boundaries of your existing products of processes, what happens if you go over the edge?

make accidents cheaper. Find ways to increase learning at lower cost using tools such as rapid prototyping

Help them to squirrel away findings which don’t pan out immediately

Watch out for accidents of all sizes and avoid labelling unexpected outcomes as “failures”

Personally, I wouldn’t advocate doing the above without some idea of the most useful directions to explore and there are ways to scope out and focus on the areas of interest without unnecessarily constraining creativity. The tools of TRIZ in particular are excellent in shaping an ideal outcome (Ideal Final Result) which can really target deliberate accidents. I’ve learnt that, given guidance, a bit of serendipity can be just the thing to boost innovation, even if it happens by accident.ďż˝

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