One particularly interesting example of accidental innovation is that of Henry Bessemer’s converter that was used to increase the speed of steel production. As recounted in John Steele Gordon’s An Empire of Wealth, Bessemer was working in 1856 in the field of military weaponry and had invented an improved artillery shell that proved too strong for the weaker cast-iron cannons of that era. Bessemer was attempting to create a stronger metal for cannon tubes when a gust of wind in his workshop hit molten iron. The gust of wind added oxygen to the iron and carbon in the molten metal and removed the impurities from the mixture. The end result was purified steel. Bessemer’s invention revolutionized the steel industry and drove growth throughout the American economy.
Another example of accidental innovation, the case of gunpowder, is cited by Mark Robinson in a 2002 article in Wired. The concoction that we know today as gunpowder was originally investigated as a way to prolong life but accidentally found to have explosive properties.
Building on the concept of accidental innovation, a recent National Public Radio interview with the British author Simon Garfield suggests another possible approach to innovation – wrong way innovation. The impetus behind this is Garfield’s assertion in his new book, On the Map, that Christopher Columbus intentionally went the wrong way to lead to his great discovery. Garfield states that Columbus was likely armed with knowledge of a westward route to Asia from “a recent printing of Ptolemy, The Travels of Marco Polo and a letter of guidance from Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, the Florentine physician and astronomer who decades earlier had suggested to the King of Portugal that a journey to the riches of Asia might be attained far more easily by sailing westward rather than around the base of Africa.” Columbus, though, believed that his journey to Asia would be 2,400 nautical miles, which is one-fifth of the actual amount, and thus Columbus’s vision for success hinged on maps that were distortions of reality. Had he been armed with knowledge of the true distance to Asia, Columbus might have never attempted the journey.
Garfield also observes that distortion is a powerful tool for mapmakers, and perhaps the most famous map that presents a distorted view of reality is that of the London Underground. The iconic Tube map is revered for its simplicity and colorful presentation of a complex system, though the scale leaves something to be desired as the distance between stops is not consistent (some stops are a few hundred yards apart, while others are miles apart). Nonetheless, the Tube map is incredibly useful and the staple of anyone navigating across the city.
Thinking about how distortions, or indeed incorrect information, can lead to successful discovery suggests the possibility that there is value in wrong way innovation. That is, by heading in the wrong direction, whether intentionally or inadvertently, an innovator can achieve success in spite of his or her starting point.
Echoing this point, a recent book review in the Wall Street Journal by Laura J. Snyder examines authors who investigate the field of alchemy to look for linkages to modern science. Snyder reviews John Glassie’s biography of Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit priest in the 1600s, who dabbled in research topics including the properties of light, language, medicine, and mathematics. Snyder notes that Kircher’s work in the field of natural magic reveals how “erroneous ideas about investigating nature helped lead to modern science.” Snyder states that by developing hypotheses that eventually were shown to be false, Kircher unintentionally pushed forward the boundaries of science. For modern scientists who are familiar with the concept of disproving the null hypothesis, the idea of investigating an erroneous explanation for an event rings true. Glassie even argues that Isaac Newton could have read Kircher’s work, given their shared focus on topics ranging from sundials to optics to alchemy.
What these anecdotes suggest is that the most logical path to innovation may not always be the best approach. Innovation practitioners who find themselves struggling to develop a new approach to solve a problem may want to consider intentionally heading in an opposite direction from their previous plan, or may want to try a distorted view of their problem to see if this different perspective yields insights into the problem they are trying to solve.
The innovator could formulate a hypothesis to explain a phenomenon, then translate that statement into a null hypothesis and spend time investigating that concept with the workshop participants to see what insights can be derived from this approach. For example, an innovation team focused on developing insights into making a product smaller and lighter might spend a little time thinking about reasons why the product should be larger and heavier. Some of the new thinking resulting from this counter-intuitive approach could yield unexpected insights into what the team is really trying to accomplish. Like a driver on a road trip who makes a wrong turn but ends up discovering something even more meaningful than what was intended at the original destination, the innovation leader who is willing to try a different path may end up deriving new insights by heading in what initially is viewed as the “wrong” direction.
Sources: Laura J. Snyder, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices,” Wall Street Journal (January 5-6, 2013), p. C8. Simon Garfield, On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks (New York: Gotham Books, 2013). John Steele Gordon, Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005). John Glassie, A Man of Misconceptions (New York: Riverhead, 2013). image credit: two arrows image from bigstock
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Scott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.