Inside the Box

The practice of systematic creativity

The Myth of Serendipitous Creativity

Lucky inventions happen at a much lower rate than we think.

In 1891, a physical education teacher named James Naismith invented the game of basketball when he nailed two ordinary peach baskets to the wall of a gymnasium. His students loved the game. But, there was a problem. Every time a player shot the ball into the basket, somebody had to get up on a ladder and take it out. That wasted a lot of time and it ruined the flow of the game.

But then something happened. After many games, the bottoms of the peach baskets became so weak that they eventually broke off, allowing the basketball to fall straight through.

This simple serendipitous invention allowed the game to be played continuously without interruption, and it gave rise to a global billion-dollar industry we know today as professional basketball.

The game of basketball isn’t the only invention created through pure chance. Many successful products you see around you today are the result of serendipity. The Post-it note, velcro, penicillin, x-rays and even chocolate chip cookies were created by chance.

With so many successful products created through serendipity, it makes you wonder whether companies can rely on it to create breakthrough products. The answer is no. Serendipity, as a method of innovation, has a very poor track record. The number of serendipitous products is a tiny percentage of the total of all products. It just doesn't yield nearly the amount of blockbuster products as you would think.

So why does it seem there are so many of them? That’s because serendipitous products are more memorable than others. We hear about them in the news media more often. Because of that, we recall more examples of serendipitous products than other inventions. So we’re fooled into thinking they must be occurring at a much higher rate. It just isn’t true.

Instead of having to rely on chance, you’re about to learn a method that you can use proactively to create new products and services.

Let’s look back at our basketball example. What if James Naismith had used a thinking tool that guided him to remove the bottoms of the peach baskets right from the start? Had he done so, he would have seen the benefit immediately.

We’ll never know for sure. But, what would you rather rely on? Pure chance? Or would you prefer to have a method that leads you to these same inventions in a systematic way?

If you’re serious about innovation, I advise you to go with the odds, not the gods. While serendipitous products are fun to read about, don't let them distract you from using a systematic approach that will increase your creative output.

 

Copyright 2014 Drew Boyd

 

Drew Boyd is a professor of marketing and innovation at the University of Cincinnati.

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