Alas, our society has become one wherein we are constantly in fear of being punished lest we err in some manner. It is simply not fashionable-nay, not politically correct-to make a mistake or be party to an accident. Unfortunately, managers are often skilled at instilling fear of mistakes, and squelching those who are thought to be accident prone.
But mistakes are part of learning, beginning with childhood and continuing throughout life-even for a genius. In his book Einstein’s Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius, Hans C. Ohanian explains that many of Einstein’s groundbreaking discoveries were blighted by mistakes. For example, his first theoretical proof of the equivalence of mass and energy, E = mc2, was incomplete and only approximately valid. Although he struggled with this problem for years, it remained for better mathematicians to develop a complete proof. Ohanian’s discussion is by no means pejorative. Rather, his central theme is Einstein’s uncanny ability to use his mistakes as stepping stones and shortcuts to success, which is a hallmark of genius.
Accidents and unintended consequences are often the basis of innovations that advance manufacturing, medicine and our way of life. The key question is how to let accidents happen, or create them on purpose.
Writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, Dr. Robert D. Austin, professor of managing creativity at the Copenhagen Business School; Dr. Lee Devin, professor emeritus of theater at Swarthmore College; and Dr. Erin Sullivan, senior research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health, point out that potentially productive accidents occur at three levels: the surprising mental association, achieving a desired result in an unexpected way, and stumbling on something valuable while looking for something else.
They also discuss practical strategies managers can use to leverage accidents into innovation. Among them: hire creative people, give them unexpected assignments to keep them creative and support their inclination to squirrel away ideas that don’t work immediately. Perhaps most importantly, don’t label unexpected outcomes as failures. Instead, managers should find ways to position them as necessary and valuable parts of the innovation process. You can download a podcast in which Dr. Austin explains how managers can learn to spot valuable accidents at www.wsj.com/businessinsight.
Even destructive accidents-think of “Galloping Gertie,” the ill-fated Tacoma Narrows Bridge over Puget Sound-advance our knowledge and stimulate improvements to equipment, systems or procedures.
We are essentially prisoners of our own history. Our imagination-erroneously thought to be free-is in fact bounded by our past experience, and it is very challenging to get past those limitations. The mistake made, or accident experienced, often breaks through the boundary and sets the imagination truly free to examine new ideas and concepts without prejudice.
Beware those who say: “We never make misteaks.”
Editorial: Accidents and Innovation
September 29, 2008