“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Alan Kay
If Innovation, in the strict sense of the word, is the successful introduction of something considerably new, we can speak of America’s discovery more than 500 years ago as one of the most influential ‘innovations’ in world history.
In Search of an Alternative
Ironically enough, when Columbus set foot on American ground in 1492, he didn’t know that he was doing so. Until the very end of his life, he remained unaware of the fact that he had actually discovered a new continent. In search of an alternative sea route to India, America – or what Columbus thought to be the east coast of Asia – quite literally got in his way and appeared out of nowhere. He was looking for one thing and discovered another – in that case something far more interesting than what he was looking for in the first place.
The Chance Factor
Considering the numerous lucky “mistakes” that made history, one is tempted to doubt whether it was a matter of conscious effort or rather of fortunate happenstance that brought forth some of the most powerful innovations. When Charles Goodyear accidentally dropped a caoutchouc-sulphur mix on hot furnace, the unexpected result was vulcanized rubber, a discovery that would change the face of the industrial world entirely. Alexander Fleming forgot a vaccinated petri dish before going on summer vacation. After returning to his laboratory several months later, he found the petri dish covered in a mould with surprising qualities: it killed all the surrounding bacteria – Fleming had fortuitously “invented” penicillin and the modern era of antibiotics began.
Effects Now, there is quite a list of these serendipitous1 findings: Viagra, tea bags, X-ray, Teflon, microwave, LSD and not to forget about the ice lolly. What they all have in common – besides being indispensable in our everyday life – is that they are more or less unexpected results from a process that was not intended to produce them. However, one has to be cautious in considering these innovations as mere strokes of luck. For a lucky coincidence is one thing. To see the potential of such a coincidence is another and requires the ability to recognize and appreciate the unexpected. Or as Louis Pasteur puts it:
“Fortune Favours the Prepared Mind” Louis Pasteur
Speaking of preparation: is there a way to help fortune along? do the above innovators share a common pattern in their way of thinking and approaching the world? a pattern that one could identify and develop systematically in order to generate innovations more likely instead of leaving it to chance alone?
See Bridges Where Others See Holes
Look at Columbus: curiosity, the willingness to take on risks, nonconformity and persistence surely were features that characterized his mindset, but what distinguished him most of all was his ability to think outside the box – outside the box of the then existing world(map) and to “see bridges where others see holes”2. From an entirely different perspective of the world he virtually saw an alternative connection that for his contemporaries was inconceivable. Or Charles Goodyear: he was (unintentionally) capable to take existing elements and reshape them into a new combination, which, if you do it intentionally, is what yields innovation. It’s about breaking away from the traditional way of thinking – it’s a matter of change in culture…
1 Serendipity is the capacity to discover things that are not in quest.
2 De Rond (2005): “The structure of serendipity”.