Five Ideas that Came from Accidents on the Frontlines

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In their latest book, Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder explore how frontline employees in many organizations are the ones that fuel growth and innovation by making the sorts of discoveries that revolutionize an entire industry.

Here are just five examples of amazing innovations that didn't come from management but from happy accidents coupled with the foresight of smart frontline employees:

1. The Microwave
Percy Spencer was an engineer at Raytheon. One day, after he had walked in front of a magnetron (a vacuum tube used to generate microwaves), he noticed that the candy bar he had been saving for a snack had completely melted into a gooey mess in his pocket. Spencer started experimenting further and in 1945 created the first microwave oven.

2. Teflon
Roy Plunkett was a researcher at DuPont in the refrigeration section tasked with replacing the coolant that was being used at the time (which was made of ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and propane) with something more home-friendly. He was experimenting with various samples, including a very early form of polytetraflouroethylene, but when he opened the container that it had been stored in, he saw that the experimental gas was gone and all that was left was a weird resin that was completely resistant to both heat and chemicals. Teflon was born.

3. Post-It Notes
In 1974, Arthur Fry learned of an adhesive that was accidentally developed by fellow 3M employee Spencer Silver that was too weak to really hold anything. Spencer thought he had failed but Fry found the adhesive to be perfect for holding bookmarks in his hymnal when singing in the church choir -- and it didn't leave a residue and was easy to remove. Seeing the potential for other applications, they approached their employer about manufacturing note cards with the adhesive. In 1980, 3M introduced Post-It notes, and the rest is history.

4. Superglue
Harry Coover was working at a Tennessee chemical plant. The chemical plant was looking for a chemical compound that required neither heat nor pressure to form a bond. Harry remembered that he once tried to make precision gun sights for handheld weaponry using a clear plastic. The problem was that the chemical instantly polymerized when it came in contact with moisture and caused all materials to bond together. However, this quality made it ideal as a strong sealant that could deliver just what the company was looking for. Superglue was born.

5. Minoxidil (Rogaine)
Researchers at Upjohn were testing a blood pressure drug named Loniten. The medication itself had only limited success, but the test subjects would comment during interviews about how their hair was growing in thicker or their hair loss had stopped. Researchers then took the active ingredient from the medication and made it a foam to apply on the scalp. The results were encouraging enough to petition for an entirely new product. Today, Rogaine sales account for approximately $60 million a year in income.


Five Reasons Why "Sustainable" and "Environmentally Safe" Products Failed

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Nadya Zhexembayeva's latest book encourages leaders to look for resources in unconventional and unexpected ways to manufacture and market their products and still be sustainable. Good thing, too, because traditional sustainability initiatives have proven quite useless for most businesses.

Here are five reasons why traditional sustainability efforts have failed:

1. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon -- and most of them without any integrity. Have you seen all the "gluten-free" labels on products these days? It has been slapped on products that never had gluten anyway (like beef jerky). In that same way, consumers have gotten smart to labels such as "organic" and "all-natural" as not exactly honest. And with so many manufacturers all using the same buzz-phrases and emphasizing how kind they're being to the planet and yet so few actually having any real impact, the public now suffers from "green fatigue." They've been bombarded with green marketing so much that they frankly don't care any more.

2. Not Everyone Wants to Pay More Just to Be Green.
American economist Theodore Levitt was the first to exclaim that marketers should not overlook the importance of a product's value at the expense of market needs. The market gets first priority. This is not what happened with green marketing, though. The most successful green products have to offer a consumer value equal to that of non-green products. Consumers may care about the planet, but they care even more -- on the whole -- about the quality of their products, so playing the green card doesn't ensure profits.

3. Manufacturers and Environmentalists Have Used the Wrong Narrative.
By using the doom-and-gloom scenario, environmentalists and others have created a bigger problem. Consumers will act on initiatives where they feel they have some impact and also feel good about doing it. However, the narratives we have been using emphasize two big negatives: (a) Guilt over not doing anything (and guilt is never a motivator), and (b) The idea that the future is so dark and doomed that an individual's choice of what detergent is purchased won't make any difference anyway.

4. Major Brands Are Not Getting Behind Sustainability in a Big Way.
As Joel Makower has argued, the large companies are not really getting behind any real sustainability initiatives other than just dipping their smallest toe in the water. In 2010, of the ten largest advertisers  (Procter & Gamble, AT&T, General Motors, Verizon, News Corp., Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Time Warner, General Electric and Walt Disney), only two -- GM and GE -- have tried in earnest to market products as "green." One of those -- GE -- is largely B-to-B.

5. No One Bothered to See What the General Public Was Thinking About Sustainability.
Sustainability has by and large been a one-way talk to the public without anyone doing much research to see what the public thought. Had research been done, we would have learned how to present sustainability in a way that would appeal to everyone. OgilvyEarth released a report that outlined the usual problems with green products (overpriced, too niche-y) but also presented new information that no one thought to act on. For one, 82% of the people they surveyed said that going green was "more feminine than masculine." No one thought that gender played a role in this, and that's the problem. Another finding was that 82% of Americans have no idea what "carbon footprint" is or how to calculate theirs. This explains why 70% of Americans would rather cure cancer than fix the environment.