We often treat an unexpected or surprising happening as an irritation or distraction. It delays us from getting on the with job so we quickly work around it. But sometimes it pays to step back and ponder the meaning of what serendipity has just handed us. Consider these four unexpected occurrences.
1. In 1928 a Scottish bacteriologist returned from his vacation to find that one of his petri dishes had a strange mold growing in it.
2. In the early 1940s a Swiss engineer went for a walk with his dog in the Jura mountains. When he came home he saw that his trousers and the dog’s fur contained many tiny seed burrs.
3. In 1946 an engineer at Raytheon discovered that a candy in his pocket melted when he worked near an active radar tube.
4. In the 1970s a technician working for a music accessory company wired a circuit incorrectly. The component made a weird moaning sound.
Each of these incidents could have been treated as an annoying accident. Most people might have cleaned the petri dishes, brushed out their trousers, removed the sticky sweet or rewired the circuit correctly. Fortunately for us the protagonists in these stories all welcomed the unexpected event, investigated and then acted.
1. Sir Alexander Fleming saw that the mold had rejected the bacteria in the dish. He had discovered penicillin – almost by accident. It was a piece of good fortune that led to the development of antibiotics and the saving of millions of lives.
2. George de Mestral examined the burrs under a microscope and saw that they had tiny hooks which caught in the trouser fabric. He went on to develop a new way to fasten materials – Velcro. The word comes from the French words Velours and Crochet – a Velvet Hook.
3. Percy Spencer developed the world’s first microwave oven because of this accident.
4. Scott Burnham adapted the strange wail into a guitar-pedal sound. He invented the Rat, a pedal that thousands of bands from Nirvana to Radiohead used to enhance their music.
A new book on the process of invention, Inventology by Pagan Kennedy, claims that almost half of all inventions started with a serendipitous process. Often this was the result of ideas or discoveries that people had while working on something else.
Kennedy goes on to say that inventors are often polymath connectors, ‘who by luck or design are able to bring together knowledge from several fields’. She points out that the people most likely to solve problems on the Innocentive crowdsourcing site are outsiders to the field of the problem.
When something unexpected happens don’t get annoyed, get curious. Find out why. The customer with a weird complaint or a weird use for your product is one hundred times more interesting than the customer who is happy using your product in a conventional way. Welcome the surprising.
This is an excerpt from a chapter in The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills