The other day I ran across a list of 10 accidental inventions — game-changing products discovered either while trying to create something else or as simple serendipity. On the list were iconic innovations such as super glue, penicillin, Teflon, Velcro and the Slinky.
I loved the Slinky as a kid. You probably did, too. The Slinky has been a favorite toy for decades, but its discovery had nothing to do with fun or play.
In 1943, naval engineer Richard James was trying to design stabilizing springs that would keep sensitive instruments steady on battleships. One day, James dropped a helical spring he was working on and, as it slinked and clinked across the floor, he got the idea to turn it into a toy. Two years later, Slinky went on sale at Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia.
Like the other inventors on the list, James was able to see potential in an unexpected experience or insight and then turn it into something that paid off in even more surprising ways. An article published earlier this year in Knowledge@Wharton listed several similar examples of how “peripheral” knowledge — ideas from domains that are seemingly irrelevant to a given task — can influence breakthrough innovation. Among them: the cushioning in a Reebok basketball shoe inspired by intravenous fluid bags and a leak-proof water bottle developed by IDEO using technology from a shampoo bottle top.
Citing research by Wharton management professor Martine Haas and doctoral student Wendy Ham, the article discussed how “work groups can recombine ideas in novel and useful ways” by bringing peripheral knowledge to core tasks.
The trick, of course, is figuring out how to get workers who are focused on a particular task to “notice — and make use of — seemingly irrelevant information.” One obvious way is to help them develop expansive and adaptive thinking.
That sentiment was echoed in “Future Work Skills 2020,” a report published by the Institute for the Future and sponsored by University of Phoenix Research Institute in an effort to increase understanding about the skills workers need in a technologically advanced and changing world.
The report analyzed the key drivers reshaping the landscape of work — such as global connectivity, smart machines and new media — and identified critical work skills, proficiencies and abilities that will be required across different jobs and work settings leading up to 2020. Novel and adaptive thinking was one of them. The report cited Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor David Autor’s emphasis on “situational adaptability,” or “the ability to respond to unique unexpected circumstances of the moment,” as a proficiency that will be at a premium.
Yet the way many organizations approach education and workforce development isn’t always conducive to nurturing these critical thinking skills.
In a 2011 Harvard Business Review piece, Tony Golsby-Smith wrote that business leaders around the world “despair of finding people who can help them solve wicked problems — or even get their minds around them.” The problem, he said, is education that focuses on teaching people to “control, predict, verify, guarantee and test data” instead of “navigate the ‘what if’ questions or unknown futures.” He said the answer is to prepare employees to “be curious, to ask open-ended questions, see the big picture … apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.”
Now more than ever, the world economy is being driven by innovation, with high-tech research, development and commercialization spurring economic growth. But innovation isn’t always the result of calculated genius. We don’t always know where ideas will come from, where they will take us or what new insights we might encounter on the way. So, it pays to keep our minds and eyes open to new and different possibilities.
Businesses must be alert to the changing environment. They must adapt their workforce planning and development strategies to ensure alignment with the skills every workforce will need to be productive contributors and competitors in the future.