5 Innovation Failures That Changed the World

Innovation failures and what can you learn from them

On some level, we are all afraid of failure.  It's a natural instinct to want to succeed, to be proud of your work, and…well, to be able to brag about your accomplishments at class reunions rather than being reminded of our failures.

The sad truth is, into each life must come to a little failure.  Your project may tank in the 11th hour.  Your novel may stall in the second to last chapter. It's harsh but true.

Still, before you chuck your failed efforts into the dumpster and head off for consolatory ice cream, you may want to think about the unintended consequences your efforts might yield.

In fact, some of the greatest inventions in history were created completely by accident.  All were considered failures…except by the clever person who saw their potential and made a fortune repurposing that “mistake.”

Here are just a few examples of everyday items that might never have seen the light of day, if they had just stayed “failures.”

  • Penicillin: When Alexander Fleming was looking for his wonder drug to cure diseases, he probably never thought it would look like mold.  Yes, had Dr. Fleming been a little tidier and a little less innovative, he might have just cleaned the mold from a contaminated Petri dish he found.  Instead, he noticed it was dissolving all the bacteria around it and investigated further.  Voila!  Wonder drug.
  • Pacemakers: Electrical engineer John Hopps was conducting research on hyperthermia when he discovered that if a heart stopped beating due to cooling, it could be started again by artificial stimulation.  This led to the invention of the pacemaker, and countless lives have been saved ever since.
  • Microwaves: Percy Spencer of the Raytheon Company was conducting radar research with vacuum tubes when he accidentally melted a candy bar in his pocket.  He put some popcorn in his experiment, and thus was born the microwave popcorn industry.
  • Corn Flakes: What happened the last time you left a pot on the stove too long?  When John Kellogg and his brother Will left a pot of boiled grain on the stove for several days, the resulting mess became the launching point for their famous breakfast cereal.
  • The Slinky: Naval engineer Richard Jones wasn't trying to invent what is arguably the best toy ever (your opinion may vary – see Silly Putty).  He was working on tension springs designed to monitor power on naval battleships when one of them fell to the floor.  Killer Question from that moment: Is this fun or what?

The truth is, there is a very fine line between failure and inspiration.  When you have the ability to look at a situation from a different perspective, ask a different question, there is no telling what sort of amazing discoveries you might make!

For more on the role of killer questions and how they can help create breakthrough innovation, read Beyond The Obvious.

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