I’m really not sure that anyone can intentionally create an innovation from whole cloth. There’s a fine book about this that will be a future review but, for now, consider the beauty of what emerges from great experiments. In other words, consider the accidental discovery that powers much of the office environment: post-it notes.

One person’s terrible glue is another person’s just-right adhesive. In 1968, Dr. Silver Spencer was trying to invent a super-strong glue and invented a super-weak one instead. Worthless, right? Yes. As a matter of fact, it was worthless at that particular time.

The innovation wasn’t in the creation of this adhesive. It was in the discovery of its application. Six years after the “failed” experiment, a colleague realized that he could use the adhesive to hold his bookmarks against the pages of his chorus books when singing in the church choir. The glue was just enough to keep the bookmarks in-place without tearing the hymnal’s pages.

Anyone who has sang in a choir can appreciate this. It was a novel solution. But most people don’t sing in choirs so the innovation still faltered at its initial launch. It took another year and a little something called The Boise Blitz to make the innovation spread.

Coincidentally, this story is validation for marketing. While yesterday’s post derided market research as a faulty indicator of the right path, marketing tactics like The Boise Blitz clearly show that marketing is a powerful accelerant for success. It reminds me of a quote from John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

You might think half the time you spend on experiments, trials, and pilots is wasted, too. But the post-it note story should hopefully show that accidental discovery is the valuable exhaust from the machine that we should use however we can. That’s the innovation. Accidental, years in the making, validated by customer experience, occasionally pushed along with strong marketing tactics, and the stuff of The Lean Startup. More to come. Especially on what a real experiment or pilot is supposed to be. I think that idea has suffered from “concept creep”. 

Photo by Peter Hellberg