Companies looking for the secrets to innovation may want to time-travel to London of 1928. It’s summer, and a young microbiologist named Alexander Fleming is growing staphylococci bacteria in petri dishes as part of his influenza research. One day, he notices something unusual: a clear area where there shouldn’t be one.
Many biologists, perhaps most, would have thought nothing of it. But Fleming was curious. He discovered that a bit of mold had fallen into the dish when it was briefly left uncovered. The mold, belonging to the genus Penicillium, had killed the bacteria, thus the clear area in the petri dish. Fleming named this antibacterial agent penicillin. The world’s first antibiotic was born.
Later, Fleming reflected on the odds of making such a discovery: “There are thousands of different molds, and there are thousands of different bacteria, and that chance put that mold in the right spot at the right time was like winning the Irish sweepstakes.”
Over the centuries, scores of such accidental discoveries have occurred, including Archimedes’ principle, Newton’s law of universal gravitation, dynamite, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Teflon. We have a word for this kind of unexpected goodness: serendipity.
Serendipity is an important part of the creative process — and, all too often, a misunderstood one. Yes, serendipitous discoveries are stumbled upon, but not by just anyone. Alexander Fleming had been studying microbiology for years when he noticed something amiss in that petri dish. Alfred Noble had long been experimenting with different forms of the highly volatile chemical nitroglycerin when he discovered a way to stabilize it, in what is now known as dynamite. Muhammed edh-Dhib, a young Bedouin shepherd, was no archaeologist, but he knew something “wasn’t right” when, in 1946, he tossed a stone into a cave nearby and discovered the Dead Sea scrolls.
In other words, serendipitous discoveries are not as accidental as they appear. Fleming, for instance, had a few things going for him. Having grown up on a Scottish hill farm, he was reflexively thrifty, a hoarder. He wouldn’t discard anything until he was sure he had wrung every bit of usefulness from it. So he picks up a dish of staphylococci, which he has been hoarding for days, and sees something unusual. He recognized the importance of this anomaly for, as Louis Pasteur famously said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
A keen sense of observation is also important. Some 50 years before Fleming, another scientist also spotted an unexplained patch of dead bacteria cells in a petri dish but didn’t consider it worth pursuing. Doing so would have taken him off track. Researchers skilled at exploiting chance are willing to be derailed. They are more sensitive to small variations in the environment, and especially to anomalies. Noticing what others explain away is crucial to exploiting chance.
Despite the trope of the absent-minded professor, creative people are, in fact, highly attuned to their surroundings. Beethoven was intimately familiar with the natural rhythms of the Wienerwald, the forests on the outskirts of Vienna where he found inspiration, the Finnish composer Sibelius was stirred by the foul order of a bog he traversed by foot. Adam Smith honed his ideas for his seminal work, “The Wealth of Nations¸” not only in the library but by conversing with Glasgow’s merchants and dockworkers. These creative geniuses accomplished all of this not by withdrawing from the world but engaging with it more deeply
Serendipity also demands a certain restlessness. Rarely do these “happy accidents” emerge while reclining in a La-Z-Boy. They happen when we’re on the move, interacting with a varied swath of our environment. It’s known as the Kettering principle. Charles Kettering, a renowned automotive engineer, urged his employees to keep moving, for “I have never heard of anyone stumbling on something sitting down.” A Spanish Gypsy proverb expresses the same idea this way: “The dog that trots about finds a bone.” Sure, it’s possible to move quickly and miss important clues that whiz by — the dog that gallops finds no bone either — but, in general, velocity is creativity’s friend.
Finally, organizations play an important role in fostering serendipity. They allow employees — encourage them even — to detour down avenues that may not, at first glance, appear productive. Perhaps nothing will emerge from these diversions but, as history shows, the payoff could potentially be enormous.
Eric Weiner is the author of “The Geography of Bliss” and “Man Seeks God.” To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.
He will be speaking at CLO Symposium+PLUS in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Monday, Sept. 26 at 1:30. If you miss him live, you can catch his keynote in the CLO Symposium Video Library for the event, releasing Oct. 24.