Finding the Unexpected: Creative Accidents

A reader pointed me to creativity expert Michael Michalko’s blog, and it’s terrific. One of his recent posts speaks to something I have thought and written about:

Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else. As simplistic as this statement may seem, it is the first principle of creative accident. We may ask ourselves why we have failed to do what we intended, and this is the reasonable, expected thing to do. But the creative accident provokes a different question: What have we done? Answering that question in a novel, unexpected way is the essential creative act. It is not luck but creative insight of the highest order.
Absolutely. The key, then, is to do stuff to allow such creative accidents to happen.
Even when people set out to act purposefully and rationally to do something, they wind up doing things they did not intend. John Wesley Hyatt, an Albany printer and mechanic, worked long and hard trying to find a substitute for billiard-ball ivory, then coming into short supply. He invented, instead, celluloid— the first commercially successful plastic.

So don’t hold too rigid to your business plan or life plan — they can become straitjackets which prevent you from seeing the new opportunities on the sidelines. Here’s my post on wandering without a map and on agile software development mapped to life.

B.F. Skinner advised people that when you are working on something and find something interesting, drop everything else and study it. In fact, he emphasized this as a first principle of scientific methodology. This is what William Shockley and a multi-discipline Bell labs team did. They were formed to invent the MOS transistor and ended up instead with the junction transistor and the new science of semiconductor physics. These developments eventually led to the MOS transistor and then to the integrated circuit and to new breakthroughs in electronics and computers. William Shockley described it as a process of “creative failure methodology.”
When to drop everything else and study it is the tough question. When to throw massive amounts of energy behind a project. Until then, maintain a diverse portfolio of activities and don’t focus too much.
Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate physicist, had an interesting practical test that he applied when reaching a judgment about a new idea: for example, did it explain something unrelated to the original problem. E.g., “What can you explain that you didn’t set out to explain?”and, “What did you discover that you didn’t set out to discover?” In 1938, 27 year old Roy Plunkett set out to invent a new refrigerant. Instead, he created a glob of white waxy material that conducted heat and did not stick to surfaces. Fascinated by this “unexpected” material, he abandoned his original line of research and experimented with this interesting material, which eventually became known by its household name, “Teflon.”
 
In principle, the unexpected event that gives rise to a creative invention is not all that different from the unexpected automobile breakdown that forces us to spend a night in a new and interesting town, the book sent to us in error that excites our imagination, or the closed restaurant that forces us to explore a different cuisine. But when looking for ideas or creative solutions, many of us ignore the unexpected and, consequently, loose the opportunity to turn chance into a creative opportunity.

In other words, expose yourself to randomness. Take a different route home from work. Pick up the chance book. Start reading blogs outside your field.

4 Responses to Finding the Unexpected: Creative Accidents

  1. carli says:

    Ben, I’m sure you’re familiar with Evan Williams, creator of Twitter, and I believe his goal is to “plan” accidents leading to real innovation. If you haven’t read the Economist article about him, check it out here:
    link to economist.com

  2. I try to ignite brainstorms by writing down random bits of information I cross in my reading.

    It’s amazing how often I find a pattern in those notes, or how serendipitously they coalesce into a pattern when I work them into my writing.

    Not so strangely, considering my spiritual bent, the ambient vibes of the reggae music I stream from my computer is often the catalyst to jump-start creative randomness while I’m composing.

    I even use the song title display of my Foxy Tunes extension to consult the ‘oracle’ of my inspiration, just as I used to throw the I Ching for the same purpose.

    The music’s synchronicity with my own little dent in the fabric of space-time is such that often when I type a word, the very same word appears at that instant in the display.

    That’s when I know I’ve converged with the universe.;-)

  3. I’m looking across my studio at my decade-old copy of Evan Williams’ Internet Services Marketing Manual.

    I laid out some big bucks to buy that one, and you know what? It helped me get on the right track. Am still in the biz to this day. Thanks, Evan.

  4. Krishna says:

    Creativity is the process of discovering something you did not start out with. Sometimes in the process, you may reach a dead end. It’s a mistake if you think your journey has ended. It’s just a signal for you to retrace your steps and continue. Nature has its own way to present you with complexities, when you’d think you’d just solved the most intricate.

    So there’s nothing called a cul de sac. They are just temporary suspensions. Nothing is exciting if you know what the outcome is going to be. Even the woodpecker owes his success to the fact that he uses his head and keeps pecking away until he finished the job he started.

    Keep at it, go carve your own destiny.

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