Innovative opportunities in the unexpected

John W Lewis's picture
Chat Date: 
Thu, Apr 07, 2016

Unexpected outcomes offer a major opportunity to learn about the possibilities available to us. They are highly reliable sources of opportunity because they are actually happening. This innochat is the last in a series of discussions on the seven sources of innovative opportunity identified by Peter Drucker in his book "Innovation and Entrepreneurship".

When mould/mold is causing a problem on your samples of bacterial cultures being grown for a scientific experiment, or when your samples of organic material that were heated for too long have congealed and are clogging your apparatus, an understandable response is to throw them away and start again. But if everyone did that, it would have taken longer to discover antibiotics and polymerization.

When “the wrong people are buying our products” or "people are buying the wrong products", many organizations respond by trying to correct the situation and induce the expected behaviour by encouraging “the right people” to buy, or to buy “the right products”. However they might benefit more by following the advice of Guy Kawasaki. Step one: take the money! Step two: don't ask “the right people” why they are not buying “the right products”, go and ask the people who are buying why they are buying!

Unlike the forecasts of an expected outcome, an unexpected outcome is an actual effects. It is not merely a prediction, based on an understanding of the subject area, of the likely effect of a change or of taking advantage of a change. There is no need for the outcome to be postulated, it is already being demonstrated.

As Drucker describes, the challenges of exploiting opportunities arising from unexpected outcomes are of a different kind from those associated with other kinds of opportunity.
Firstly, expectations might have been set so that an unexpected outcome, however potentially benefical and reliable, is not seen as desirable. If so, it is likely to be ignored or, if it is seen as undesirable, it is likely to be resisted.
Secondly, even if the outcome is seen as desirable, its causes might not be understood. It challenges current understanding. This can cause disbelief and confusion unless or until a better understanding is developed.
Thirdly, the biggest challenge, before any others can be addressed, is that the unexpected outcome might be not even be seen.

Individuals and organizations are normally operating on the basis of an expected outcome. They are monitoring and measuring parameters and reporting activities based on a current understanding of the field and of the process by which that outcome is expected to be generated. When the reported results differ from the expected results, then there can be an investigation, and changes can be made. But before that can happen, the differences must be detected.

The greatest challenge for seekers of innovative opportunity arising from “the unexpected” is to detect the opportunity at all.

Substantial opportunities that arise from the unexpected might be missed completely by the reporting systems in use. The nature of the activity and the process by which benefits arise from it, might be sufficiently different from those expected that they occur unseen.

Whether they occur only occasionally or occur continually over long periods, even when the signals arising from them are detected, the analysis might not be designed to find them and report them. And when they are detected, analysed and reported, they might be judged in a different light, perhaps as irrelevant or as a nuisance to be reduced or avoided.

When unexpected outcomes are detected and are treated as opportunities, then the other challenges can be addressed. They can be investigated to understand what is happening and what benefits they offer.


Let's discuss opportunities for innovation arising from unexpected outcomes during #innochat on April 7th, 2016, starting at 12pm (noon) Eastern Time, based on the following questions:

  1. How do we, as individuals and organizations, respond to unexpected outcomes?
  2. What can we learn from unexpected outcomes (success, failure, or otherwise) and how?
  3. Why do we avoid unexpected outcomes which might be substantial opportunities?
  4. What options do we have when unexpectedly outcomes conflict with current activities?
  5. How do we maximise the probability of detecting opportunities arising from “the unexpected”?


I hope that innochat participants ("the innocats") have enjoyed this series of seven innochat discussions on Peter Drucker's sources of innovative opportunity and would, of course, encourage everyone to read his book. "Innovation and Entrepreneurship" describes some important aspects of innovation which contribute to a valuable fundamental understanding of the subject.


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