The Creative Accident:
Are You Looking for the Unexpected?

Detour

Editor’s Note: We’re delighted that creativity expert and best-selling author Michael Michalko has submitted this guest article on finding unexpected gems in creative pursuits.

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 rather creative insight of the highest order.

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.

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.”

Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate physicist, had an interesting practical test that he applied when reaching a judgment about a new idea: Did it explain something unrelated to the original problem? In other words,

  • What can you explain that you didn’t set out to explain?
  • 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, lose the opportunity to turn chance into a creative opportunity.

About the Author: Michael Michalko is one of the most highly-acclaimed creativity experts in the world and author of the best-seller Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Business Creativity), ThinkPak (A Brainstorming Card Deck), and Cracking Creativity (The Secrets of Creative Genius).

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Comments

  1. If it were not for the happy accidents that come along as I am working, I’d little to show for my effort. Most of the ideas I come up with are really and truly awful. It’s after they’ve been in the forge for awhile that they start to soften up a bit and the warm creamy center of creativity starts to dribble out.

    See, what I mean? The metaphor above just stinks, but if I sit on it for awhile it might turn into something good. And if it doesn’t? We’ll I’ve gotten one more bad idea out of the way. :)

    Great post, Michael.

  2. Michael–your metaphor made me hungry for a cream filled pastry. Thanks alot! ;)

    Great article–my biggest problem. Fear of failure. Paralyzes me sometimes, but I’m learning to “fail forward” slowly but surely.

    Great reminder–thanks!

    Denise

  3. Oops–sorry Jamie. Called you Michael.

    Going back for second cup of coffee, now… ;)

  4. @Denise Thanks! If not for the Subscribe to Comments plugin, I wouldn’t have known that my metaphor was so appetizing. By the way, I’d recommend Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes as a great read for dealing with fear of failure and fear of success (equally debilitating).

  5. You must be prepared to handle the unexpected with a personal home based business as well, and make sure you are protected in case of unforeseeable change.

  6. It is an absolutely splendid thing to come upon an unexpected event in studio. ..a mystery to pursue, or to just leave unexplained and perfect in it’s randomness.
    My work made a quantum leap when I went with the surrealist bits of automatic painting that kept just showing up. I had no idea how these appeared. I was just responding as I painted . As it turns out these were guides to a more modernists approach, a whole new path for me. One so much more exciting.
    I kind of look at unexpected things now as hints, some as shoves.. :)
    Thanks for the into to Michael. I must investigate his Tinkertoys.

  7. Michael,

    Well-said. What HAVE we done, rather than what haven’t we, is also a great glass-half-full way of looking at things, and I always find that positive attitude encourages creativity.

    Great stories of happy accidents!

    Regards,

    Kelly

  8. Great article. I have always found that unexpected events have propelled me creatively. I am on a writing binge ever since I happened to here about a rather sad thing about a friend. At first I felt rather creepy and thought that I was taking advantage of the situation.

    On the sidenote, the idiot me changed my Twitter User Name after submitting for the contest!!! Even if I am not counted, I have to post this here :-)
    http://twitter.com/rockus/statuses/815067566

  9. Fear of failure blinds us from seeing these small opportunities that we accidentally create. It takes a flexible mind to continue discovery in the face of “failure.” It seems that much of creativity is about keeping an open mind as you observe.

  10. “It seems that much of creativity is about keeping an open mind as you observe.”

    Absolutely. That affords agile responsiveness instead of a continued sea of ho hum.

    The whole Wii Fit is based on how Sumo wrestlers weigh themselves on two scales. Some cool thinking and observing going on there.

  11. I’ve delayed reading Michael’s books for quite some time. Now, with a Copyblogger post though, I feel compelled to purchase them.

    After reading this story, Brian, I’m reminded of your ski trip accident and how it changed your course for the better.

    James: I’m reminded of Niebu.

  12. Oh, Janice, I love that. What a cool and weird image.

  13. I thought so too. :) Thanks.

  14. Sumo wrestling? Warm creamy center of creativity? What a happy creative accident to be turned on to such wonderful minds. :)

    This post did get me thinking…if only insurers offered liability protection against creative accidents. I’m sure the deductible would be high, but perhaps the DMV (department of motivational veracity) could offer an “I” test to ensure that self-destructive behavior was kept to a minimum.

    Best,
    Mark

  15. I have never been afraid to fail. Which, as it turns out, was a good thing. Because I have failed so much.

    The secret, as everyone knows, is to learn from your failures and move on a wiser person.

    You don’t have to invent something world changing….you just have to invent. A good post, a new way to cook dinner, or just a new route to walk the dog. Keep moving forward.

    Live From Las Vegas
    Where we re-invent ourselves daily
    The Masked Millionaire

  16. This post is the perfect example of how you should always be open and curious and relates to James Chartrand’s last post on trigger events.

    When these people stumbled on something new, a trigger went off in their head. The light bulb came on and they became curious.

    Then they became successful by solving a new problem.

  17. Excellent article. I have Michael’s book ThinkerToys on my shelf right behind me. Published 1991. I devoured that book when it came out. It’s still great.

    When your idea feels final, implement it. Do not spend days, weeks, or months refining it.

  18. Dang, forgot the quotes on the last two sentences.

  19. Oh, the joy of a happy accident! Two wonderful experiences come to mind – the misery of a failed chocolate pavlova and the subsequent exhilaration when (after some fast thinking) it became a rather scrumptious chocolate trifle with a difference! Just goes to show it’s not the ingredients you have, but what you do with them that counts…

    The second discovery happens to me when writing – those ‘little’ sidetracks that take me away from the purpose of my article can often unearth absolute gems which create the genesis of future ideas. Now I look at my ‘distractions’ as future research! I feel infinitely more productive (and much less like a failure for not creating the article I originally set out to write!!)

  20. My brains keep turning to jello! And I don’t have time for that! I’ve ordered the books

  21. Excellent, good on you!

    I just keep reminding myself that even when I think I’m open, I can probably open up even more. You know, just like at the dentist lol! Might be some pain involved, but bring on that flashy bright smile!

  22. With my blog, we had a few unexpected delays which postponed launch. It was indeed a blessing in disguise – many important features we ended up coming up with happened as a result of the delay – and we are all the better for it.

  23. That article was gr8. But what do you think about borrowed creativity. I am from India and everyday we see people innovating in order to make ends meet. A keen observer generally looks out for such innovations, works on it and improves it. Or like something that happened with me I heard a peice of advertisement on the radio and used the same as the theme of our college annual function. This is what I call as borrowed creativity. I hope you would like to elaborate on this idea….

  24. Very interesting piece. It would make a really good book. From the author’s bio, it seems that he’s probably discussed things like this in his books, which I plan to check out.

    It’s nice to know that certain outcomes are just the result of people who were able to adapt to unexpected outcomes. It makes the world a much more interesting and exciting place.

    http://wordspicturesweb.wordpress.com

  25. I always liked the 3M post-it note innovation story. Some guy in a 3M research lab was trying to invent a new type of glue (so I’m told). He failed miserably. The new glue he developed couldn’t hold anything heavier than paper together and came unstuck easily.

    But he noticed something interesting (ding, the lightbulb hovering over his head lit up). Objects came unstuck easily but could be temporarily re-stuck together several times. A new purpose for the glue became apparent.

    Instead of chucking it in the bin he realigned the product purpose and thus came into being the post-it note.

    The glue seemed worthless for it’s orginal purpose but in a different light was hugely useful.

  26. ChrisJB,

    I never heard the glue story before!

    The Post-It note goes on with happy accidents, too. I may be mangling it a bit, but I believe they originally tried to sell it to execs, then starting giving Post-Its to their secretaries when they couldn’t get to talk to the top dogs. The secretaries loved them and word-of-mouth took it from there.

    Regards,

    Kelly