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The Law of Unexpected Consequences

Cause and effect is never as simple as it looks.

What do the elements of this list have in common?

cholesterol lowering drugs
the ice cream soda
Ivory soap
artificial sweeteners
Smallpox vaccine
stainless steel, and

Yes, like Post-It note glue, they were all discovered ‘by accident’. Or rather, their application came after their discovery.

Most organizations adopt a scientific model of innovation, as innovation thinking emerged from Research and Development. R&D-based innovation assumes controlled cause and effect.

But, innovation throughout the enterprise in how work is done is the broader role that leaders have to develop. And that tends to emerge rather than be prescribed.

Harvard’s Robert D. Austin says that to lead innovation you have to draw from art as much as from science.

Austin notes that artists try to develop a talent for causing good accidents, and they cultivate an ability to notice the value in interesting accidents.

Pasteur called this the “prepared mind”. In leadership terms, we need to move away from seeing the leader as an external force for change, one whose actions are ’causes’ that intend to generate the ‘effect’ of change/improvement throughout the organization, and see leadership as something that takes place within the system, helping the organization ‘bet’ on emerging trends as they occur.

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