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 / Autumn 2006 / Issue 44(originally published by Booz & Company)


Recent Research

Luckily, It’s an Accident
Robert D. Austin ([email protected]) and Lee Devin, “Accident, Intention, and Expectation in Innovation Process.” Click here.

“I did not ask for a spore of penicillium notatum to drop on my culture plate.… When I saw certain changes, I had not the slightest suspicion that I was at the beginning of something extraordinary.” This is how Sir Alexander Fleming described his 1928 discovery of penicillin. Fleming was not unusual among researchers in attributing his breakthrough to a lucky accident. Anesthesia, cellophane, corn flakes, dynamite, nylon, PVC, rayon, smallpox vaccine, stainless steel, and Teflon are just some of the other innovations that involved some unexpected occurrence. Yet the role that unplanned incidents play in discovery and invention is often minimized in business.

Part of the problem, say Robert D. Austin, associate professor of technology and operations management at Harvard Business School, and Lee Devin, emeritus professor of theater at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, is that accidents, by definition, are anathema to business planning. There is no place in formal innovation processes set aside for the unexpected.

The authors researched the role of luck in important scientific and commercial innovations at many companies. From their findings, they proposed an accident intensity scale that could form the basis of taking good fortune into account in business innovation processes.

Fortuitous accidents, the authors note, occur at four levels. Level 1 involves unlikely mental associations. For example, Edward Jenner said that his discovery of smallpox vaccine resulted from his idle recollection of a milkmaid telling him when he was 19 that she would never have smallpox because she had once contracted cowpox. This was common lore in the village that she came from.

Level 2 accidents occur when someone is looking for something but finds it in an unexpected way. For example, scientists at the Schering-Plough Corporation hoped to devise a drug that would lower cholesterol by blocking a cholesterol-producing enzyme in the body. During the research, they noticed that one of the molecules they were experimenting with, while failing to block the enzyme, still reduced cholesterol levels. This accidental discovery led to the development of Zetia, a blockbuster cholesterol treatment drug.

Level 3 accidents involve looking for one thing but finding something else. Several artificial sweeteners fall into this category. For instance, James Schlatter, an organic chemist at GD Searle, was working on a cure for gastric ulcers. He was heating aspartame in a flask with methanol when the mixture boiled over the top of the test tube onto his hand. It was only later when the scientist licked his fingers that he noticed the sweet taste.

Level 4 accidents occur when someone isn’t looking for anything specific but finds something valuable anyway. In 1894, John Kellogg, a medical doctor, was supervising a health spa in Michigan with his brother Will. Seeking a nutritional diet, the men invented many foods, including granola that is made by forcing dough through rollers. One time, they left the dough untended for more than 24 hours. Later, when they tried rolling the stale dough, the rollers produced fine flakes instead of long sheets. The brothers tried the same thing with corn — and corn flakes were born.

The higher up the scale an accident is, Professors Austin and Devin note, the more likely it is that the resulting innovation will be truly novel. They conclude that “Level 2 and 3 accidents seem about right for business innovation processes.” But companies must foster an attitude that is open to happy accidents by encouraging employees to watch for the unexpected and examine it for innovative value.

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