Be aware of what you can’t see
5 July 2020
The discovery of the Post-It note is storied in folklore: in the late 1960’s a 3M scientist tried to develop a very strong adhesive (super glue?) but he “failed” and instead produced a light, reusable pressure-sensitive adhesive. It didn’t fulfill his company’s task, so he personally used that adhesive, which it did not leave any residue, on strips of paper to mark his pages in his church hymnal. 3M then adopted his idea and manufactured a bookmark, but the sales were weak and the attempt failed. It wasn’t until 1979 – almost 20 years later – that 3M used the adhesive with scrap yellow paper to market the first Post-It.13M is a company almost built on making “mistakes.”
This is an example of a success that came from “failure.” It was a series of searching decisions by a great company with smart people before it became something productive and useful to many.
I was blind to my own (very little) version of a Post-It when I observed the result of a manufacturing test that was – at first – not what we intended. I was part of the initial eclectic group that started G-Form, and when we reviewed one of our initial attempts at molding an impact foam to be used in protective products, I saw that the result not worked out as we intended, similar to 3M getting a weak adhesive in an attempt to build a strong one.
Fortunately, one person in the group saw the result as successful in a way I couldn’t see, and was excited (and patient) enough to explain to the rest of us. The “mistake” made it possible for the molded foam to be flexible and protective and conform to a body part, instead of our intended direction that would make a firm shape.
The mistake-turned-discovery sat on the table right in front of me, and I am embarrassed how long it took me to see it as a positive, useful result.2Now, however, I’m old, and mostly made of scars – I assume whatever I’m doing isn’t going to go by plan, and we will need to re-evaluate, re-group, and re-aim almost continuously.
In order for me to not mentally and physically disregard what was a true step forward and a critical piece of the company’s future products, I (and most of the team) had to let go of what we thought we knew and had decided was the right direction. Instead, we had to see and then be able to accept something that was decidedly different than what we had envisioned.3It was not as big a difference as that of super-strong adhesive and a reusable office note. But still.
We can make being able to see both very specific and very broad. In a specific instance, the people you work with – no matter where they appear in the official or unofficial org chart – may present you with something that not only is unexpected but something that you literally might not be able to see at first.4If you speak a foreign language, you may be familiar with words or phrases in one language that simply don’t exist in another. See the introduction to Nassim Taleb’s AntiFragile It could be many things – a thought, reaction, product, design or report. Secondly, in a more broad sense, we also need to adjust our aim when we miss our own internal targets, and be able to see what we have in front of us in order to be more effective, useful to those around us, and improve the collective.
Looking at the sample results that day, I had been convinced that my initial direction and perspective was correct, and most of my colleagues shared the same view. We had worked on it together, but our vision had been myopic.
Now, I often walk into situations accepting and anticipating my limited awareness and experience. My analysis, conclusions, pros vs. cons, experience, and thinking, might be completely off and I might be unaware that it is. The world might show me that, with a toss of a few reject attempts on the table, with an offhand phrase as someone leaves, or a number that just doesn’t seem to make sense – that I am not only blind to what’s really happening, but wrong.
Part of success
Being wrong, failing, or any other way that describes missing our goal is necessary for our success.
The group, team and co-workers will benefit only by recognizing and embracing responsibility to keep our egos in check and our eyes open.
It takes humility and a ton of patience, but taking responsibility and looking for what we don’t see will increase the probability of success, and occasionally end up with a great product (and patents.)5US Patents 9,770,642, 9,782,662 and 9,908,028.
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