The Art of Accidental Innovation: Tales of Discovery and Success

blue pillCan product innovation really happen by accident? Penicillin, Viagra and the humble Post-It note were all famously ‘stumbled upon’ by their inventors. Can we learn anything from these stories about the nature of invention and how to capitalise on it?

As Goethe once put it:

“Discovery needs luck; invention, intellect – none can do without the other.”

But are there things we can do to tip the balance either way?

Here are some inspirational (and cautionary) tales from the strange history of discovery and innovation:


“When I woke up just after dawn on 28 September 1928,” said Alexander Fleming, “I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”

In fact, Fleming’s discovery took place after he left his equipment unwashed and went on holiday for a couple of weeks. When he came back, he found that a strain of the dangerous bacteria “Staphylococcus aureus” which had been growing across a discarded petri dish had been destroyed by an air-borne mould – a type of fungus.

It turned out that the death-dealing bacteria had been stopped in its tracks by the world’s first antibiotic - which Fleming christened penicillin.

“It was a triumph of accident, a fortunate occurrence which happened while I was working on a purely academic bacteriological problem”, he later, modestly, commented.

Of course, had Fleming been following GLP and other GxP guidelines properly he would never have left his lab in that state in the first place…


Viagra is often cited as the ultimate happy accident in medical innovation. In the mid-90s Pfizer found that a drug developed for angina (intended to relax blood vessels around the heart) also improved circulation elsewhere in the body.  

But while its most famous side effect was accidental - its application in other settings may only have been noticed and exploited because of the meticulous requirements of clinical testing and documentation that surround pharma development.

If you’re developing new products, are your testing and documentation regimes recording meaningful data that are fed back into your organisation to maximum effect?

Are your processes geared to prevent failure ARE capitalise on new opportunities when they present themselves?

Viagra is a reminder that commercial opportunities can arise anywhere - but you often need a firm grip on your results to power them through.

The pacemaker

In 1956, an engineer named Wilson Greatbatch, working at the University of Buffalo was trying to build a device to accurately record the human heartbeat. But he accidentally installed the wrong type of transistor in his prototype and inadvertently stumbled upon the idea for the pacemaker.

Greatbatch presented his invention to William Chardack, a surgeon at Buffalo's Veterans Administration Hospital, in 1958, and together the two were able to successfully control a dog's heartbeat. Finally in the 1960s the device was successfully used on a human.

That small mix up over transistors had a huge effect on the treatment of heart disease. But Greatbatch needed other expertise to realise the clinical opportunity in his revolutionary innovation.

Innovation, particularly in med tech, needs deep and diverse expertise to realise its full and potential bring its rewards to those who need them.


The accidental discovery of radioactivity led Marie Curie to identify the elements: thorium, polonium, and radium - for which she was awarded her Nobel prize. These are the discoveries that have been used to fight cancer and bring countless benefits to the world.

But some of those who commercially exploited the curious luminescence of radium early on, proceeded with an alarming lack of caution.

In the 1920s radium was being used in a whole range of products such as lipstick, chocolate, watches, tonic water and jockstraps. It was even put into chicken feed with the hopes that the eggs would self-incubate. Inevitably this ended in disaster.

In one NYC factory a terrible disease now called "radium necrosis’ began to affect the women who painted radium onto clock faces. Workers, who were encouraged to lick their paintbrushes to help apply the substance, suffered destructive facial tumours, an affliction which eventually alerted the world to its physical dangers.

By 1938 the use of radium was subject to proper regulation, but not before it had killed many consumers and factory workers. In fact, the graves of the radium girls in New York are still radioactive to this day.

It seems innovation can have unintended consequences - good and bad.

Supporting product innovation with document control software

Post-It Notes

In 1968 a man named Spencer Silver was working on developing an ultra-strong bonding agent for use in aircraft construction. A mistake led him to create so-called ‘acrylate co-polymer microspheres’, which were able to work as a very weak pressure-sensitive adhesive. This new substance had an extraordinary property, though. It was able to stick firmly to almost any surface at any angle - and be removed with ease without leaving any residue.

Although no one else in the M3 business had any interest in this invention, Silver himself was convinced it had a future. He was using the adhesive to create bookmarks and stickable paper reminder notes. Ten years later he finally managed to persuade his bosses to release these notes as a product in their own right - and the rest is history.

As Spencer Silver himself said: "I came to be known as Mr. Persistent because I wouldn't give up.”

But the story of the Post-It note is not just about the importance of persistence. It’s also about how a lack of process within a company can prevent innovative ideas from emerging and hold you back. Without a defined system for collaboration, developing new business cases and testing new product ideas, companies can stagnate and restrict their own growth.

How to encourage happy accidents and avoid unhappy ones:

Inspiration comes in many forms, it is visited on us through mistakes, hunches and flashes of brilliance. For every great idea that is recognised and capitalised on, there must be hundreds that are missed. At the same time, there are surely plenty of people convinced their ideas are brilliant who are pursuing inventions that are genuinely terrible or are unwittingly creating huge new areas of risk.

The question is how can we foster an innovative mindset in our organisations without waiting forever, breaking the bank, risking reputation or sending us down unprofitable rabbit holes?

The challenge for many innovative businesses is building the processes and company cultures that will help them:

  • Encourage teams to freely ideate and continually present new ideas
  • Support experimentation while learning from mistakes
  • Rapidly assess feasibility of competing opportunities
  • Choose ideas with the most commercial potential
  • Mitigate risks of product failure and/or danger to consumers
  • Repeat development success in cycles of continual improvement

In this blog post we discuss how these processes can be managed with the right digital tools.

A final thought

In 2007 three Argentinian scientists discovered that Viagra also helped hamsters recover faster from jet-lag. Unfortunately, however, it only seemed to work for rodents travelling East. Excitement in the hamster community (at least for those not taking the drug) was short-lived.

And even Pfizer may struggle monetising that insight.

Guide NPD to NPI Process

Tags: New Product Development

Joe Byrne

Written by Joe Byrne

Joe Byrne is the CEO of Cognidox. With a career spanning medical device start-ups and fortune 500 companies, Joe has over 25 years of experience in the medical device and high-tech product development industries. With extensive experience in scaling businesses, process improvement, quality, medical devices and product development, Joe is a regular contributor to the Cognidox DMS Insights blog where he shares expertise on scaling and streamlining the entire product development cycle, empowering enterprises to achieve governance, compliance, and rigour.

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