Thursday, September 29, 2005

Mistakes can become the beginning of good ideas

The Manila Times
Business Times p.B3
Thursday, September 29, 2005

By Moje Ramos-Aquino, FPM
Mistakes can become the beginning of good ideas

MAJOR barriers to innovation are fear of making mistakes and wrong decisions, negative attitude toward failure, culture of blaming and discomfort about faults, risks, oddity, weirdness and the like.

Yet, many useful inventions and innovations today are by-products of errors. In her best-selling book, Mistakes that Worked, Charlotte Foltz Jones cites “accidents” that led to outstanding discoveries. She asserts that it is easy to fail and then abandon the whole idea, but it is more difficult to fail, then recognize another use for the fail-ure. As Bertolt Brecht in 1930 said, “Intelligence is not to make no mistakes, but quickly to see how to make them good.”

Some examples Charlotte gave are:

While mixing a batch of cookies, Ruth Wakefield ran out of baker’s chocolate. As a substitute, she broke some semisweetened chocolate into small pieces and added them to the dough, expecting the chocolate bits to melt and the dough to absorb them, producing chocolate cookies. When she removed the pan from the oven, she was surprised that the chocolate had not melted into the dough, and her cookies were not chocolate cookies. Wakefield accidentally invented the yummy chocolate chip cookie.

In 1905 11-year-old Frank Epperson of California mixed some soda-water powder and water, which was a popular drink in those days. He left the mixture on the back porch overnight with his stirring stick still in it. The temperature dropped to a record low that night.

The next day Frank had a stick of frozen soda water to show his friends at school. Eighteen years later, Frank remembers his frozen soda water mixture and began a business producing Epsicles, later changed to Popsicles, in seven fruit flavors. Today, one estimate says three million Popsicle frozen treats are sold each year.

In 1174 the Italian engineer Bonnano Pisano began work on a bell tower for the cathedral in Pisa, Italy. When he started, he had no idea it would be famous because of a mistake. The tower was to be 185 feet high, but construction was halted for almost a hundred years, because the soil beneath the tower was soft and the foundation was not strong enough to support the weight. The tower was finally finished in the fourteenth century, but each year it leans 1.25 millimeters. It currently tilts 5 degrees, or about 17 feet. While the town of Pisa enjoys the money tourists bring when they visit the leaning Tower, they fear someday their tower will lean too far and become the Toppled Tower of Pisa.

The Swiss engineer George de Mestral returned from a walk one day in 1948 and found some cockleburs (weeds) clinging to his cloth jacket. When he loosed them, he examined one under his microscope. The principle was simple. The cocklebur is a maze of thin strands with burrs (or hooks) on the ends that cling to fabrics or animal fur. He recognized the potential for a practical new fastener. It took eight years to experiment, develop and perfect the invention, which consists of two strips of nylon fabrics. One strip contains thousands of small hooks while the other strip contains small loops. When the two strips are pressed together, they form a strong bond. Velcro, as George named it, is strong, easily separated, lightweight, durable, washable, comes in a variety of colors and won’t jam. There are thousands of uses for this amazing fastener—on clothing, shoes, watch bands, backpacks; around the house or garage; in automobiles, aircraft, parachutes, space suits, or space shuttles; to secure blood-pressure cuffs and artificial heart chambers. The list is never-ending.

What do you do when you commit a mistake or had an accident? How do you react when your subordinates or colleagues fail, or make a mistake, or have an accident? Careful, careful, you or they might be discovering something. The author Jones detailed about 40 mistakes that worked in her book. Read it and be inspired.

The Rotary Club of Quezon City North will again give an accelerated learning workshop for 100 more public elementary-school teachers in Quezon City for four Saturdays from October to November. Our volunteer trainers, Joey Uybarreta, Ces Munos, Tina Maramba, Owie Salazar and Butch Nayona, are giving their services for free. We need your help to defray some administrative expenses like handouts, materials and supplies, meals (4 lunches and 8 snacks) and others. Please call 0917-8996653, or e-mail for how to help.

Moje is president of Paradigms & Paradoxes Corp. and RCQC North. Send your feedback to

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