In the creative arts, the unexpected is pretty much the norm. Accidents are not always bad – they usually are more likely to be good and bring the artist to another level. Many fans relish/remember the mess-ups during shows more than the perfectly presented shows (e.g. Saturday Night Live when actors break character, Radiohead when they show they are human as Jonny Greenwood had his keyboard set incorrectly during a show at the Roundhouse in London, or a live painter messes up yet incorporates that mistake into something more beautiful.) Certainly, there are instances that show the opposite in creative arts -and in business – but I was taken by an interview I read with Nigel Godrich, the producer of Radiohead. He stated:

What happens in the best times in the studio, the laboratory, is that you make something you weren’t intending to or didn’t realise you could do. A lot of it is happy accidents, a lot of it is knowing how to enable happy accidents.

The key here is the enabling of happy accidents – and this doesn’t just apply to the arts. Business has taken on a life where processes are so controlled that, even if a happy accident were to occur, there isn’t enough time or resources to enable a shift or splinter project. The reality is that an atmosphere that remains open to – or cognizant of – happy accidents can do wonders in terms of product development, business practices, fan engagement or even global politics.

In order to truly make sense of this, let’s define a happy accident. The way I see it is, the moment where something might not have come out the way you hoped it would. Or, people respond in a positive way that you weren’t expecting. Or, something looks/smells/tastes/sounds different than you were expecting. The initial accident might not be a positive one. It might be benign. The best ones show an immediate positive effect – leading you to develop something new right away. Again, it all comes down to being able to evaluate those mistakes or off-norm instances for what they are and move forward with them, ignore them, or change direction entirely.

If you’ve ever used a smartphone, you’ve most likely already engaged in numerous happy accidents. How many times has your finger bumped the phone a certain way and you realize it did something pretty nifty that you can replicate? Have you ever pressed a 3D button on an iPhone and been introduced to a feature you never even thought would have a reason to exist? In these cases, the development wasn’t an accident, but your discovery of it was.

  • John Harvey Kellogg developed Corn Flakes in 1894 while running a sanitarium.
  • When Pfizer was trying to develop a heart disease medicine, Viagra did nothing for the heart and everything for the unit down south.
  • Microwave ovens are the result of a Raytheon engineer working on a military radar system.
  • One story about Silly Putty’s creation is that a GE scientist was trying to develop a synthetic rubber during WWII – more than 300 million eggs of it have
  • been sold since by it’s current owner, Crayola.
  • Not to be outdone in the kid’s toy category, Play-Doh was meant to be a wallpaper cleaning product.
  • Many have heard the story how Post-It Notes are the byproduct of a 3M scientist’s attempt at a strong adhesive.

In the case of the Post-It Notes, it took a fellow scientist to remember the ill-effective adhesive as a solution to hold booknotes in his hymnal while singing in the church choir that turned the product into what it is today.

Ultimately, as shown just above, it not only takes an accident, but a strong perspective and insight to leverage a mistake into a happy accident. Perhaps that’s why Nigel Godrich and other similarly talented producers are so good with what they do – without large amounts of the public understanding. The thing that makes these accidents happy is not that mistakes were made, it’s that someone had the vision to do something with the information those mistakes provided.

May your business (creative or absolutely static) be filled with completely planned successes – and a sprinkling of happy accidents to boot.

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