One of the focal points of my book Agile Management is the necessity of experimentation to learn faster and become the winner in tomorrow’s market. Though major improvements and innovations have emerged from pioneering entrepreneurship, many companies constrain experimentation as they aim at maximum predictability and have fear of failure, thus limiting creativity.
However, successful organizations like Google and Spotify encourage experimentation by deploying an agile way of working and letting employees spend significant time inventing whatever interests them. And one of the nice things about daring to fail is that you can make disruptive discoveries completely outside your area of focus. This is known as the serendipity effect. Unexpectedly, you find useful and valuable things while looking for something very different – a surprise bonus. More reason to accept failure as something valuable. So have fun fiddling, playing around, experimenting, trying and dabbling; the English have a wonderful word for this: tinkering.
“Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer’s daughter.” – Julius Comroe
For inspiration let’s take a look at famous breakthroughs that happened by chance, by mistake or that originally served a different purpose. Long live those who dared to experiment, an ode to accidental discovery.
A round soccer ball
It’s 1988 and Frank Schaper, a manager at KLM, is on an intercontinental flight. Out of boredom, he is studying the long-distance route networks in the inflight magazine. He finds it really strange that the flight connections are displayed as curved lines on a world map and wonders why they are not represented as straight lines according to the actual route and distance. Eventually he concludes what mappers already know: a sphere cannot be represented on a flat surface without distortion (the commonly-used Mercator projection gives a distorted picture).
Back home, he begins to experiment, determined to design the perfect world map. He’ll finally learn that if you project the globe as a soccer-ball pattern of twelve pentagonal and twenty hexagonal pieces, you can put this together so that you can always draw a straight line between any two points. Sorted! But he can’t ignore the feeling that something is not quite right. He realizes that the five pentagons are smaller than the hexagons, so moving their centre point further from the centre point of the ball, which means that the scale changes. So the pentagons need to be nearer the middle. This was possible by making them slightly larger, and giving the hexagons three long and three short sides. When he shows it to his brother, they both get the same idea: this means a conventional soccer ball is not perfectly round, so its path will depend upon where the ball is struck. They immediately file for a patent on their accidental invention of the perfectly round soccer ball, the Geo. Not long after, Nike decide to use their invention to enter the soccer market and soon millions have been sold. The ‘round’ ball makes the Schaper brothers financially independent, but Frank’s ideal world map never made it to the market.
The World Wide Web
It is 1984, and the Englishman Tim Berners-Lee is a researcher at CERN in Geneva, where he is responsible for collecting the results of all the experiments carried out at the institute. It is quite a challenge, as CERN is a jumble of systems and people from all over the world who speak dozens of languages and need to share lots of data with each other. He starts looking for a system that will provide a creative space where people can brainstorm as well as record their project’s results and memories. While programming his solution, which he calls Enquire, by chance he discovers a simple tool that allows him to represent all the connections that he wants. It’s called hypertext: text with hyperlinks. He combines this with a protocol, Remote Procedure Call, which allows a program on one computer to call a part or process of a program on another computer. He immediately recognises that each document needs a unique name and so he uses a principle he calls the Uniform Resource Locator (URL). By the end of 1990 he has developed a comprehensive toolset with which he finally lets his network go live. These comprise of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) for sending hypertext online, the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) to create pages, a basic browser to retrieve and view the information and server software to respond to requests from the network. He gets his Belgian colleague Robert Cailleau enthusiastic, and together they choose what turns out to be a really good name, the World Wide Web. Cailleau looks to CERN for funding for the project. CERN wants to go ahead but also wants to patent much of the project. Berners-Lee refuses because he wants to keep everything free and open source. When, in 1993, student Marc Andreessen develops the Mosaic browser to use the World Wide Web, things start developing really fast. The browser is free, easy to install, easy to use and, as Andreessen mostly works graphically, he makes it possible for the first time to view images. Unintentionally, success is both immediate and outside the academic world and this is, perhaps, the point at which the Internet begins its still unbelievable growth.
After a disappointing rejection by MIT, Larry Page is finally admitted to Stanford to do his PhD research. With his supervisor’s help, Page is looking for a subject for his dissertation; together they discuss dozens of possibilities. Eventually, early in 1996, through pure curiosity, he picks a topic that relates to the fledgling World Wide Web. Because the scientific value of his published dissertation will be measured by the number of times it is quoted, he wants to find out whether this principle also applies to links to web pages. However, this is a huge challenge because hypertext links may be made without permission. Eventually he decides for a project he names BackRub, a crawler program which follows every link it finds.
There are already about one billion active links, and soon the project is occupying half of Stanford’s entire Internet bandwidth, causing frequent total crashes of the campus network. The project is getting too big and so Page invites support from his friend Sergey Brin, whom he had met during his Stanford introductory program. Almost immediately, they decide, with the help of an algorithm, to develop more-sophisticated ways to assess the value of every existing web page. Only then do they suddenly realise that their method of ordering pages by importance, could form the basis for a high-quality search engine. Displaying more than a little vanity, the project is renamed PageRank and, after further technical refinements, it finally becomes Google.
In 1998 they present their project at a conference in Australia. Then they try to sell their ideas to companies like Yahoo, Excite and AltaVista, but none show interest. So they decide to start their own business and soon after they receive their first investment: $100,000 from Andy von Bechtolsheim. Since then, the value of its shares has risen – by rather more than just inflation.
On October 28 2003, in a boisterous mood after a night on the booze, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg and three classmates come up with a funny idea. They want to create a website for the campus with a hot or not game. Visitors to the site are repeatedly presented with photos of two male or two female students and must click on the person they find most attractive. They call the game Facemash. Zuckerberg starts working on the program and by the end of the night it’s ready. Zuckerberg is able to work so fast because he hacks nine Harvard ‘facebooks’ and uses their student photos and personal information.
News spreads like wildfire across the campus and the game is immediately very popular. Alas, Harvard’s management closes the site down after a few days. Zuckerberg is immediately indicted for committing breach of privacy, copyright and security; charges will, eventually, be dropped. Later, however, he successfully uses his idea, of a web page with personal information, for an art history project. It’s not until January 2004 that Zuckerberg comes out of a conversation with three other students with the idea of using the principle of a web page with information about a person, for what we now know as Facebook. The rest is history. Incidentally, the three other students filed a lawsuit against Zuckerberg, believing he stole their idea. In 2008 he paid them $45 million, a pittance compared with Facebook’s current market capitalization of more than $357 billion – and Zuckerberg’s $43 billion plus of personal assets (of which he has decided to donate 99% to charity).
Simon Campbell and David Roberts, two researchers working at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, begin to search, in 1985, for a new drug for high blood pressure and the heart condition angina pectoris. In the late eighties, after many experiments, the drug, called UK-92480, is finally ready for clinical testing on patients. During the testing, many of the male subjects report a notable side effect: spontaneous prolonged erections. The researchers decide to figure out what causes this side effect. Eventually, a new clinical trial is started for a cure for erectile dysfunction. The tests prove successful and, in 1998, the drug sildenafil citrate, better known under its brand name Viagra, is approved by the US Food & Drug Administration. Apparently a memorable day for many men of a certain age, given the current annual sales of over $5 billion.
Spencer Silver, a scientist employed by 3M, in 1968 is busy trying to develop a super-strong adhesive. Instead, he accidently creates a reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. In the ensuing years he will regularly present, within 3M, his ‘solution without a problem’. But no one ever sees anything useful in it. This changes in 1974, when his colleague Art Fry has an idea. Fry sings in a church choir and uses loose slips of paper to mark the pages of his hymnbook. To his irritation, the makeshift bookmarks usually fall out as he opens the book. Therefore he tries using Silver’s glue to attach the pieces of paper so that the projecting part does not stick and does not damage the pages if he moves them to mark different pages. And this seems to work well. Then he thinks it might also be useful to have some on his desk for short notes. In the department is an old pile of yellow-coloured paper that he uses for his tryouts and to send notes to his boss. His boss is enthusiastic and provides some product-development budget. When the product is finally launched, in 1977, under the name Press ‘n Peel, there appears to be no demand. Only when 3M, a year later, gives away free samples to consumers, do they confirm the usefulness of the product and 94% of them say they want to buy it. With clearer marketing communication about applications for the product, it is relaunched in 1980 under the name of Post-it notes.
In the late nineteenth century, a group of Seventh Day Adventists gather to develop foods that will fit into the vegetarian diet recommended by the Church. Mostly they use different types of grains. In 1894, Dr. John Kellogg begins to use these recipes for his patients in the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, in the pious hope that this will reduce their sexual passions and especially masturbation. He asks his brother Will, who runs the sanatorium, to help him in the kitchen to experiment with the effect of different ingredients. While they are busy cooking wheat, both are called away for something urgent and place the cooked wheat on the worktop. After a rather long time, they return to find the wheat has become hard and dry. But because their budget is very limited, they decide nevertheless to find a way to use it. It takes a lot of muscle but, eventually, they roll the wheat out into long strips. Unfortunately, though, the wheat starts to flake. Curious to see what will happen, the brothers decide to toast the flakes. This yields crispy flakes which rapidly become very popular with the patients. This prompts the Kellogg brothers to improve the recipe, eventually replacing the wheat with corn. In 1906 they decide to market their ‘flaked-corn’ and set up a company called Kellogg’s.
Each year an award is given to individuals making outstanding contributions in the field of science, literature or peace. The peace prize is rather remarkable, given that its namesake, Alfred Nobel, is the inventor of dynamite. In 1864, Nobel, a Swedish chemist and engineer, is busy with a series of experiments, in the family’s Stockholm factory, looking for a way to stabilize liquid nitroglycerin in a solid form so that it can be stored safely. Because this is a highly explosive substance, accidents occur that ultimately lead to the death of Nobel’s younger brother and a number of employees. Yet the company continues experimenting. One day Nobel is carrying nitroglycerine in empty cans which have previously contained silica. While carrying the cans, he sees that one of the cans has accidentally opened and he dives for cover from the explosion he expects to follow. But nothing happens. Nitroglycerin is leaking slowly from the can and Nobel immediately understands that this must result from mixing with the silica remains in the can. After several follow-up studies it appears indeed to be a good stabilizer, and he thinks that it would be convenient to pack the stuff in rods. In 1867, he patents his invention as dynamite, and it proves to be very useful in the mining and construction industries and, unfortunately, in warfare. It makes Nobel very rich. In his will, he leaves the entire interest on his capital, to be used annually on the anniversary of his death (December 10), for the award of five Nobel Prizes.
In 1879, Constantin Fahlberg is busy with experiments in the lab of professor Ira Remsen at Johns Hopkins University. His research on coal tar derivatives is not so fruitful and, because it is already late, he rushes home for dinner. In his haste, he forgets to wash his hands either in the lab or at home (or maybe he was just a grubby sort of guy). During dinner he notices that all the foods have a very sweet taste. After some logical thinking he concludes that there must be a substance from the laboratory on his hands, and it must have a sweet taste. The next day he begins experimenting directly with the strange, sugary substance and discovers that it can be used as a sweetener to replace sugar. Fahlberg and Remsen publish their findings in two scientific articles but, in 1884 only Fahlberg decides to apply for a patent, under the name saccharine. This makes Remsen furious, especially during the First World War as he watches Fahlberg become incredibly rich due to the shortage of sugar. Incidentally, an alternative to saccharin, aspartame, was also invented by chance: in 1965 the substance was discovered by chemist James Schlatter when he was working on the development of a drug against gastric ulcers.
The Microwave Oven
Percy Spencer was a leading scientist, during World War II, in the Raytheon Company laboratories. Early in 1945 he was experimenting with a device called a microwave, a tube that forms part of a radar installation and emits microwaves. While cleaning the exterior of the device, he notes that the candy bar in his pocket begins to melt (apparently the local Health and Safety Act was open to interpretation). Because he suspects that this is related to the radiation, he begins to experiment with it and, while making many things including popcorn, discovers a whole new way of cooking. Because he suspects that the radiation would prove harmful to humans, he designs a closed furnace containing the microwave. In 1947 Raytheon launches it into the professional kitchens market, priced at $5,000. It is not until 1967 that they develop a smaller model, for the consumer market that costs less than one tenth of the original. A blessing, perhaps, for people with limited culinary talent and their families.
What links Velcro, dogs and the cocklebur plant? Something you’re almost certain to have in your home. In 1941 George de Mestral, a Swiss electrical engineer, is returning home with his dog from a hunting trip in the Alps. His dog’s fur has become a mat of prickly seed-like things that are a real nuisance to remove. While struggling with the dog, a loose seed lands on his coat and sticks to it; really sticks. And this makes De Mestral curious. He decides to put the fruit under his microscope to see how this happens and discovers the seed has thousands of tiny hooks that easily attach to the weave of his clothing and the fur of his dog. Keeping what he has learned in mind, Mestral begins trying to connect all kinds of materials with hook and loop surfaces. Nobody takes his idea seriously, but he’s nothing if not stubborn and continues to experiment. Along the way, he discovers that nylon is the most appropriate material for his accidental invention, but it takes a long time to develop a suitable production process. Eventually, in 1955, he patents his invention under the name velcron, better known to us as Velcro. Initially, this looks so unattractive that apparel producers show no interest and he only has success with industrial applications. But, after a few cosmetic improvements, De Mestral’s company is soon selling about 55,000 kilometers of Velcro per year.
Other accidental inventions
Besides these inspiringly serendipitous breakthroughs there are many others, but they merit their own book. Therefore, here’s just a brief summary:
When in 1859 the end of the lamp-oil industry is beckoning, chemist Robert Chesebrough loses his job and moves to the oilfields. There he hears people complaining about ‘rod wax’, a viscous black substance that sticks to drilling rigs and blocks-up machinery. But he hears that it also helps worker’s scrapes and cuts to heal faster. He discovers a way to extract petroleum jelly from the rod wax, patents the process and brings Vaseline to the market.
As a result of injuries he receives fighting in the Civil War and related chronic headaches, pharmacist John Pemberton is addicted to morphine, a dangerous opiate. In 1886 he is looking for a replacement and takes a drink made from a coca-leaves solution. This he subsequently sells as a panacea for many ailments. Soon it is clear that his elixir does not work, but people love its taste. After some interesting recipe detours he founds, in 1892, the Coca-Cola Company.
Alexander Fleming, the Scottish bacteriologist, discovers, after returning in 1928 from a vacation, a mysterious fungus in one of his petri dishes. He notices that existing bacteria do not grow on or touching the fungus. However, he does not manage to reproduce the fungus in large quantities. Thirteen years later, though, other scientists do succeed and a very successful drug is born.
In the absence of anaesthetics, patients in the mid-nineteenth century often were rendered unconscious by a blow to the head, partial strangulation or excessive alcohol. In 1844 the dentist, Horace Wells, attends a play, and sees that an actor, under the influence of nitrous oxide, seriously injures his leg but feels no pain. Soon he is using the gas for his patients.
In 1867, the American Samuel Fay invents a convenient way to attach receipts to coats in a cloakroom: he folds a piece of wire into a crossed triangle. His solution works well and he applies for a patent. Later, but in a slightly modified form, it appears on the market and seems to be particularly useful for clipping stacks of paper together.
In 1943, naval engineer Richard James is doing routine maintenance on a ship’s tachometer when he accidentally drops the spring that holds the meter in place onto the floor. The spring then ‘runs’ over the floor with a rather funny movement. This gives him the idea to make toys and, to date, the Slinky has sold over 250 million units.
In 1942 a team of US scientists led by Harry Coover are looking for a material to make transparent rifle sights. While experimenting, one recipe creates a sticky substance which adheres to almost anything immediately and seems to be very strong. It is dismissed as unfit for a rifle sight, but when Coover is working at Kodak, in 1951, he rediscovers this cyanoacrylate, for which he coins the name ‘superglue’. In 1958 it comes on to the market.
In the first half of the 20th century many households are still using coal stoves and this results in smoke stains on the walls. Noah McVicker is working for a soap manufacturer and devises a way to remove them. But, with the advent of gas heaters and washable vinyl wallpaper in the 50s, demand disappears accordingly. The company is almost bankrupt when his cousin Joe accidentally discovers that the cleaning agent was often used by children to make Christmas decorations. They adapt the recipe, change the name and successfully launch this artificial clay as a toy.
Following the discovery of X-rays in 1895, Henri Becquerel was curious to see if this could be an explanation for fluorescence. In one experiment he places uranium salt in the sun and then on a photographic plate. And it, indeed, appears to have become black after developing. But after he accidentally discovers that this occurs without placing the uranium salt out in the sun, he studies it further. After a year he loses interest and hands the ‘project’ over to Marie and Pierre Curie. Eventually, they name the phenomenon radioactivity.
In 1903 the French chemist Edouard Benedictus accidentally let a glass bottle fall on the floor of his laboratory. The glass shatters but the fragments remain associated with each other and keep the shape of the bottle – which had contained cellulose nitrate. He finds that the nitrate had evaporated and left a film residue on the inside of the glass. Shortly after, Benedict reads in the newspaper about car accidents and the injuries caused by broken windscreens. Car manufacturers show no interest, and it isn’t until WW1 that his invention is used to make lenses for gas masks.
In 1853 George Crum, head chef of a restaurant in Saratoga Springs, becomes severely irritated by the behavior of a customer. This man always sends his plate of fried potatoes back to the kitchen because they are too thick and soggy. Crum decides to get his revenge by cutting the potatoes into thin slices before frying them, then drenching these very crisp slices with salt. To his surprise the customer finds them delicious and orders another plateful A new snack is born.
Around 1490 winemakers in the Champagne region are incredibly envious of their cousins in Burgundy. They dream of producing top-quality red wines and so they begin trying to do so. But, in the winter of the more-northern Champagne climate, fermentation in the bottle stops early and then starts again in the spring. This creates bubbles in the wine and exploding bottles, which they hate. While they are spending lots of time and money trying to overcome this problem, the bubble wine is actually becoming quite popular. Their subsequent switch to white wine is what eventually leads to what we now know as champagne.
Frank Epperson is an 11-year-old boy, living in Oakland Ca. and experimenting, on the porch of his home, with different ways to make soda. Late one evening in 1905, he accidentally leaves a cup of soda outside with a swizzle stick still in it. The drink freezes overnight and, the next morning, he enjoys a pleasant surprise: the first ever ice lolly.
In 1904, the New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan decides that it is cheaper to send tea samples to customers in hand-sewn silk bags instead of cans. But instead of pouring the tea out of the bag, they dip the porous pouch into a cup of hot water. Soon he is receiving more orders for his tea bags than for his tea.
During World War I the wounds of soldiers are covered with Cellucotton to stop bleeding and to heal the wound faster. Red Cross nurses discover that these small cotton wool pads are also very useful during their menstruation. They work much better than the conventional felt pads, which have to be washed and, due to their high cost, can not be thrown away after use. In 1920, based on the nurses experience, Kimberly-Clark launch a product called Kotex.
It’s 1930 and Ruth Graves Wakefield, co-owner of a restaurant called the Toll House Inn, is in the kitchen baking chocolate cookies for her customers. She’s out of her usual chocolate so she uses semisweet chocolate instead. To her annoyance it does not melt; later, though, when she tastes a cookie she is pleasantly surprised. Nestlé buys the rights to her recipe and starts selling the biscuits in 1939.
Charles Goodyear has long been looking for a way to make a rubber that is easier to handle, but still resistant to heat and cold. One day, in 1844, he accidentally spills a mixture of lead, sulfur and rubber on his stove. He discovers that this strange brew has a perfect combination of qualities that translate into many products from shoe soles to car and truck tires.
Frustrated by his failed attempts to create a substitute for rubber from natural latex, inventor Thomas Adams sticks a piece in his mouth. He finds it very pleasant to chew and starts adding all sorts of tastes. In 1888 the name chewing gum is coined.
Even more inventions
Curious about more accidental discoveries? Then try Googling inkjet printer; yo-yo; Frisbee; Listerine; glow-in-the-dark (phosphorus); X-rays; ice-cream cones; stainless steel; PTFE; matches; cellophane; plastic.
Have no fear of failure
I hope this article may inspire you to embrace experimentation and accept the value of failure. I wish you lots of fun and success with your own agile voyage of discovery! You can take the first step by reading my book Agile Management 😉