Inventions that shook the world

Some of the world’s most notable inventions have been either accidental or created by inventors who have no history or knowledge of that industry. Here are a few illustrative examples.

Potato Crisps: In 1853, George Crum, a chef at an American restaurant, invented potato crisps as he was trying to make a plate of fried potatoes for a customer. The customer sent back his plate of potatoes many times and kept asking for them to be more fried and thinner. Crum lost his temper, sliced the potatoes ridiculously thin and fried them until they were as hard as a rock. To the chef’s surprise, the customer loved them and wanted more!

Penicillin: In 1928, Alexander Fleming was halfway through an experiment with bacteria and decided to go on vacation leaving a dirty petri dish in his laboratory sink. When he returned, he found that bacteria had grown all over the plate except in an area where mold had formed. That discovery led to penicillin.

Saccharin: Constantin Fahlberg, a scientist at John Hopkins University accidentally discovered the artificial sweetener in 1879. After spending the day studying coal tar derivatives, Fahlberg left his laboratory and went to dinner. Something he ate tasted particularly sweet, which he traced to a chemical compound that he had spilled on his hand earlier in the day. It also turned out to be calorie free. Being a cut-throat entrepreneur, he sliced his co-scientist and the University when he secretly patented the breakthrough discovery Saccharin.

Viagra: In 1992 scientists at the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer were working on a drug to treat angina, a coronary heart disease. While testing residents of a Welsh village, the drug had little success against the disease. However the men taking part in the study refused to give up their medicine at the end of the test period. The result was the drug Viagra that was marketed for an altogether different purpose.

Fireworks: During the Chinese Sung dynasty (960-1279) an unknown cook accidentally mixed together charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter which were common kitchen items 2000 years ago. When the mixture was compressed in a bamboo tube, it exploded. Legend doesn’t say whether the cook survived, but I assume he must since the recipe was used several times thereafter.

What do many of the above inventors have in common? Outstanding curiosity followed by remarkable success. And like serial entrepreneurs will attest, if you at first fail, try, try and try again. Tom Peters, the renowned American management guru reminds us that we should punish mediocre success and reward spectacular failure. If we dare, that is. But we dare not in most cases because we have cost-income ratios to manage, headcount limitations and a resounding aversion to spending time “experimenting” on “new fangled ideas” without tangible results.

An apt quote from the book ‘Funky Business Forever’ by Nordstrom and Ridderstrale captures the spirit of many businesses today. “The ‘surplus society’ has a surplus of similar companies employing similar people, with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, producing similar things, with similar prices and similar quality.”

Think about your industry today. Does your organization look exceedingly like that of your competitor? Would you refer to your competitor’s office as the same forest with different monkeys? Are people in the organization afraid to say “I don’t know” because that would be seen as a sign of weakness rather than an invitation to explore, test or scrutinize existing products or policies? Is your organization guilty of regularly raiding the competition to get new hires and periodically losing current employees to the competition? Which ethic, by the way, in and of itself creates the most insane and unhealthy doses of in breeding and tunnel based industry vision.

We draw great comfort from aligning ourselves to the industry we are in. We benchmark ourselves against our peers, happy to have gained acceptance as new entrants into a field of established performers. We sit at the table of men and sip from the cup of perceived prosperity. We become comfortable when our profit margins are maintained above or within the industry average and we do not want to rock the boat and take a different tack in providing customer driven solutions that may hurt our bottom line even if in the short term.

The financial services industry sits well within this school of thought. What was the last earth-shattering product you heard produced by the insurance industry? With 42 banks in the Kenyan market, not more than five have created absolutely new products that have DRAMATICALLY changed the lives of their customers. Which stock broking firm has stood head and shoulders above its peers as the market leader in customer service (forget the numerous industry award ceremonies which are nothing other than over inflated and underwhelming obtuse PR methods- now watch my name disappear from several invitation lists).

M-Pesa and its world acclaimed innovative success was created by a mobile phone company with not a banking cell in its DNA. László Bíró created the ballpoint pen a Hungarian journalist in 1931 with no history of working in the fountain pen industry. Does the DNA of our financial services industries lend itself to trailblazing innovation or to the unimaginative, boring, staid conveyor belt generation of products and services that the majority of the players expose us to? Is there extraordinary gumption that allows for product experimentation, spectacular crashes and institutionalized curiosity?

The Viagra of the financial industry can be found. That accidental experiment that fails to cure one problem but monumentally transforms a completely un-serviced customer need. But it requires brave executives, braver shareholders and most certainly, an internal non-traditional innovator whose voice must be allowed to be heard.