Innovation is supposed to be the end product of a long, deliberate and often very expensive process.  It seems almost insulting to suggest it might occur purely by accident, but a recent study suggests we should be a little less priggish about accidental innovation, and instead do all we can to encourage it.

The researchers examined a number of seemingly accidental innovations, including Corning’s discovery of optical fibers in the telecoms industry and the development of Viagra, which was a failed angina treatment.

It’s a process the researchers refer to as ‘exaptation’, which is a biological term whereby living things use their structures for purposes they weren’t originally intended for.  Feathers, for instance, were first developed for insulation, but it later emerged that they were useful for flight too.

“We know that organizations face problems of resource scarcity and constraint. But this leaves open a fundamental question of where novelty comes from,” the researchers say. “In business, exaptation is one mechanism for thinking about precisely this question.”

Accidental innovation

So what factors help to bring about accidental innovation?  Interaction appears to be key, especially as a lot of R&D generates insights that were not conceived at the outset of the research, especially in terms of potential commercial application.  It’s vital therefore that research is exposed to people from a variety of backgrounds, who may be able to think of novel uses for the new technology.

Information sharing on its own is not enough either however, as this was not found to set in motion the kind of exaptive behaviors needed for innovation to occur.

“It is interpretive flexibility in the meaning ascribed to information that drives innovation, not information per se. If you buy that argument, then the key organizational capability is more than just openness. You need the capacity to tell a new story about what a particular chain of information means now and, more critically, into the future. Without this narrative capacity, all the information in the world won’t save you,” the authors explain.

To establish what circumstances best produce accidental innovation, the team explored a number of processes that companies can invoke, both internally and externally, to make the likelihood of innovation higher.

Creating accidental innovations

The first step the researchers recommend is for the organization to enable serendipitous encounters as often as possible.  The more likely it is for people to have conversations across team, departmental or even regional lines, but more likely you are to accidentally discover new innovations.  The famous Post-It-Note is just such an example, with 3M’s Art Fry doing just that to find uses for his invention.

Companies can also help employees think through their ideas at a much deeper level by encouraging people to work around barriers and explore new solutions.  Employees should be encouraged to attend conferences outside of their field or spend time at hackathons and in idea labs (in different fields).

“Companies such as Google are running hackathons where multiple people from within and outside the organization are brought together for a short duration of time to work intensively using design principles (such as rapid prototyping) as championed by the design firm IDEO,” they explain.

Of course, these initiatives are not easy and require significant investments in both time and resources.  They quite probably have long and uncertain timeframes for success, but the gains achievable via accidental innovations can be considerable, so it’s surely an investment that’s worth making.

“There is a way of thinking that everything should be measurable in the moment. That way of thinking rules out those happy accidents, which could eventually give you a completely different way of competing, a completely new product or a completely new solution to a problem someone has already encountered,” the researchers conclude.