In 1979 in a West London studio, a sound engineer was messing around with a new mixing table the studio had acquired. It included a “talkback microphone” that was used to have a conversation between the musicians in the recording room and the mixing booth. The engineer had added a compressor tao it - in order to uplift the softer sounds -, as well as a “gate”, an effect that eliminates the sounds that are just below a threshold of decibels.
Meanwhile, in the studio, a drummer was fooling around with a basic beat. It was at that moment that the engineer turned on the talkback mic, letting the sounds through the mixing table. It created a deep, full drum sound followed by a sudden hush. The engineer had just inadvertently created the drum sound of the 80’s.
The effect was dubbed the “gated reverb” effect and quickly picked up by artists of the decade. It became Phil Collins’s trademark, notably displayed in his song “Air of the night”. It It can also be heard in tracks such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”, to name a couple. A few bars add a 1980’s flavour to any song, and even today, artists such as Taylor Swift and Lorde use it to pay tribute to the decade that gave birth to dance music.
It is amazing how much we still underestimate how accidents, such as the one that gave us “gated reverb”, are what lead to game changing innovations. Penicillin, viagra and velcro are notorious examples of the result of chance. But just how many of today’s trademark inventions are the result of dumb luck? An extensive European study of 1000 patents revealed that in over half of all cases, the invention was an unexpected byproduct of something else.
The digital world is no stranger to such a phenomenon. Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Flickr and Slack, created both platforms while trying to create two massive multiplayer games in the early 2000’s and 2010’s respectively. Both games ended up being flops, but the byproduct is valued at over $17 billion.
Given the importance of randomness plays in creation of big ideas, what are we doing to ensure it? How are companies making it part of their innovation processes?
It turns out that probably not enough. Sure, there are some anecdotal instances of what is oxymoronically known as engineered serendipity. Steve Jobs is known to have made sure that the bathrooms at Pixar Animation Studios were far enough from the desk area that they promoted random encounters. According to Pagan Kenendy, the author of the book “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World” (2016)“, some companies even study what is the optimal number of people to sit on a table in order to promote serendipity.
However, in most cases “happy accidents” do not usually happen while sitting comfortably in an office chair. “Gated reverb”, penicillin or “Slack” all happened while the inventor was trying to do something else. In other words, serendipity favours a bias toward action.
And are most companies geared to bias action in innovation? Not really. Sure, large corporations are great at execution when there is a validated business with a very clear focus and goal. But what about earlier on the innovation funnel? When pursuing new opportunities, teams are subject to a myriad of conditions that lead to “paralysis by analysis”: Is the opportunity large enough? Is it something close to the core business? Is it feasible? Will it make millions upon launch? What does the 5 year business case look like? etc.
This inaction is also due to the immense pressure that innovation processes have placed on them. If ideas move forward, it is only through a large sum of time, money and talent. When reality checks years down the line, too much has already been invested to embrace serendipitous opportunities.
One client of ours complained that her team is not able to create anything new since their company has grown too much. They now find the ideas they come up with comparatively too small for their size. Ironically, it is precisely by following the “small” opportunities that they got to where they are now.
Serendipity is an unreliable ally in innovation. It is, by definition, not something you can count or plan on. And like happiness, it is one of those things that when we focus too much on it, it goes away. However, it can be stumbled on if companies acquire the habit of experimenting more, rather than being stuck in analysis mode. If we should learn anything from Phil Collins’s legacy, it is that great ideas come while we are happily banging on our drum.