Several years ago I was asked to deliver a keynote address at a Startup Weekend conference. I asked the attendees whether they ever presented a new idea to their boss, just to hear the words "what you have here is a solution looking for a problem..." Most participants lowered their head and answered "yes."
"So, what's a good approach to solving problems?" I asked.
"First, find a problem, and then look for a solution for it" they replied, almost in unison. No doubt, those words were drilled well into their heads.
"Bull!" I exclaimed, "the best inventions occur when you first find a solution, and then you look for a problem it would solve!"
The story of the invention of the Post-It note by 3M is relatively known. While attempting to invent a super strong glue, Spencer Silver accidentally discovered a relatively weak, pressure sensitive adhesive. It didn't interest 3M management, who was looking for a strong adhesive, instead. However, that glue, put on the back of paper, became a hallmark for 3M products and innovation, the Post-It note (and flip charts, and other products as well).
But this is not the only story of accidental discoveries that turned into some of the greatest inventions ever made. The microwave oven was discovered by a Raytheon engineer who melted a chocolate bar accidentally using a microwave magnetron. So where the inventions of Saccharin, Slinky, Play-doh, Super Glue, Teflon, Velcro, and many others.
And of course, who can forget how Newton discovered his third law of motion (gravitation) while sitting under a tree?
Accidental discoveries are obviously a powerful source of invention, but what can you do to harness it?
1. Experiment more
Obviously, you won't stumble across accidental discoveries if you don't experiment. The more you experiment, the higher the probability of accidental discoveries. Push the envelope of experimentation. Experiment when you don't know what to expect. Be careful and maintain safety, though... Experiment in areas that are outside of your comfort zone or domain expertise. The farther you branch out of your comfort zone, the more surprising your discoveries may be.
2. Spot the unexpected
Being as focused as you are on your goals and immediate objectives, you don't have time to deal with an unexpected result of your experiment. You would typically ignore it so you could focus on your real goal. That's a mistake. Don't treat unexpected results as negative. Pay attention to them. Think of those as unique opportunities to make a great invention (you just don't know what it is, yet).
3. Understand why it happened
Don't just celebrate the fact that you stumbled across an accidental discovery. Understand why it happened. It might have been accidental to you, but the reason it happened is completely rational. It was the result of specific circumstances. Maybe you did something wrong. Maybe there was an intervention of a factor you didn't know existed. It would have been easy to conclude, from the Hawthorne Experiments, that less lighting caused higher productivity and not challenge that result. However, curiosity and a deeper need to understand the unexpected result led to the realization that intrinsic motivation played the real role.
4. Capture and save it
In Combinational Creativity, new ideas are the result of combinations of old ideas. You accidental discoveries are some of the best sources of "old ideas." But only if you capture them. Even though you might be anxious to go back to your original work and ignore this accidental discovery, spend some time documenting it. What were the circumstances? What was unexpected? Why did it happen? What went "wrong"? Make sure you document everything such that you will be able to repeat the "failed" experiment and get the same unexpected results in the future. Maybe even try to replicate it one more time just to make sure you will be able to repeat it later. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to replicate something (when you find a good use for it) and being unable to because you cannot replicate the same circumstances.
5. A Solution looking for a problem
Don't try to find an immediate use for the accidental discovery. Spenser Silver accidentally discovered the weak adhesive in 1968, but only in 1977 did 3M start experimenting with Post-Its. Spend some time (preferably, in a periodic team ideation meeting) asking the question "what is this good for?" or "what problem can this solve?" or "who would benefit from this discovery?" The broader the scope of problems you are seeking, the higher the probability of a true market disruption by a great invention.
You could be the inventor of the next microwave over, Play-Doh, Velcro, or Post-It notes. Just follow those five steps.