The HBS Working Knowledge recently published an article on The Accidental Innovator. The article starts with:

Companies spend many hundreds of billions of dollars on R&D each year, but the microwave oven was conceived from a melted candy bar, saccharin from an accidental chemical spill, and the Daguerre photo process via a shattered thermometer. Accidents happen—and we’re all better off because they do.

And robert Austin goes on to say that:

Actually, though, I would not really label this “accidental innovation.” The innovation itself can’t really be said to be “accidental,” even though it involves accident. It takes a considerable capability to see the value in an accident, and to build upon it to create even more value.

To the question:

Is there a way innovators can encourage good accidents? In other words, is there anything we can control to foster this process?

Robert Austin replies:

Great question. Artists think they develop a talent for causing good accidents. Equally or perhaps even more important, they believe they cultivate an ability to notice the value in interesting accidents. This is a non-trivial capability. Pasteur called it the “prepared mind.” There’s an interesting analogy to evolutionary models of creativity here. In 1960, a guy named [Donald] Campbell proposed that we think of creativity as “Random variation + Selective Retention.” That is, we need two processes, one to generate things we can’t think of in advance, and another to figure out which of the things we generate are valuable and are worth keeping and building upon. In science, the arts, and other creative activities, the ability to know what to throw away and what to keep seems to arise from experience, from study, from command of fundamentals, and—interestingly—from being a bit skeptical of preset intentions and plans that commit you too firmly to the endpoints you can envision in advance. Knowing too clearly where you are going, focusing too hard on a predefined objective, can cause you to miss value that might lie in a different direction.

It’s a fascinating article – well worth reading in completion.