The Irony of Unexpected Success

There are many ways for organizations and individuals to innovate and find new, creative means of improving productivity, increasing effectiveness or building better products.  Ironically one of the most overlooked methods of innovation is exploiting unexpected success.  That is, paying attention to those things that are working well, even though they were not proactively pursued as innovative opportunities.

Business and science are both full of stories of the organization that failed to exploit an unexpected success only to end up in the shadows of a rival who recognized the opportunity.  In the early 20th century, a German chemist named Alfred Einhorn invented Novocain.  He developed it for use by veterinarians performing surgical procedures on animals.  Unfortunately for Einhorn, veterinarians weren’t interested in a new anesthetic.  Despite numerous failed attempts to crack the veterinarian market, Einhorn vehemently protested when it was suggested his new anesthetic might be beneficial to dentists and surgeons.  Einhorn was so focused on the veterinarian market that he viewed dentistry and surgery as unwanted distractions.  Ironically his protests actually delayed the adoption of Novocain for human medical use.  There was a strong interest in that market but Einhorn didn’t recognize the opportunity.

Another, more modern example, is the idea that lead to the creation of Electronic Data Systems (EDS).  In 1957 Ross Perot joined IBM as a salesman.  He was a top producer and noticed many of IBM’s customers needed help managing their computer hardware.  IBM had a relatively small services staff and most of their work focused on short-term contracts.  Perot saw the unexpected demand for more long-term work by the service staff and pitched an idea to IBM.  He wanted to expand IBM’s service offerings to complement their hardware products.  Perot knew services were in high demand and the limited service offerings IBM already had were doing well.  This, however, was not part of IBM’s vision for the future so Perot’s ideas were dismissed.  In 1962 Perot left IBM and founded EDS to offer long-term computer management service contracts to businesses.  The idea quickly took off.  As evidence of its success Perot sold EDS to General Motors in 1984 for $2.5 billion.  In 2004 Hewlett-Packard bought EDS for $13.9 billion.

A final story comes from Subway.  Their famous advertising campaign featuring Jared, a customer who lost hundreds of pounds, partly by eating at Subway restaurants.  Jared did not start his diet or lose his weight as a publicity stunt or marketing campaign.  He actually put himself on a low fat diet and decided he could eat healthy at Subway to help him achieve his weight loss goals.  Jared’s college newspaper wrote an article about him and it was picked up by Men’s Health magazine.  Subway took note.  Jared’s story could have easily gone unnoticed and Subway would have missed one of their biggest marketing opportunities of all time.  Instead, the franchise realized the unexpected success of one of its customers and the company leveraged it into a national marketing campaign.

By definition, unexpected successes are, well, unexpected.  For that reason they are often overlooked and sometimes actually viewed as problems to be “fixed”.  In other words, at times organizations actually view unexpected successes as an unwanted drain on resources.  It takes an open mind and willingness to examine what is going right, not just what is going wrong, to fully maximize the potential of an unexpected success.  The next time something takes off in your organization, before you dismiss it as an anomaly or a sign something didn’t go as planned, ask yourself if there’s some way to exploit it for further gains.