Innovation in Technology — During Research, Unexpected Findings Lead You Down New Paths

The Myths of Innovation, by Scott Berkun — link to AmazonLately I’ve been reading Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation. A passage about the methods for innovation jumped out at me. Berkun writes,

Many innovations start in the same way as mentioned previously [from dedicated problem solvers], but an unexpected opportunity emerges and is pursued midway through the work (p. 41).

In other words, while people are pursuing one direction, they encounter a surprise that leads them down another, more fruitful path. The surprise may lead to an invention completely unrelated from the original intent of the research.

Berkun then mentions three examples (which I describe below) where an invention came about unexpectedly.


Flickr, the popular photo sharing service, didn’t begin as a photo sharing service. Instead, the team’s original intent was to build an online game such as World of Warcraft. Midway through their work, they realized the photo-sharing feature of their online game was more popular than the game itself, so they switched directions and focused on a photo sharing service instead.


3M, the makers of Scotch tape and Post-it Notes, originally stood for “Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.” In the early 1900’s, 3M was drilling mineral deposits to find better ways of making grinding wheels. Faced with declining profits, they shifted products to abrasives (e.g., sandpaper). One day an employee saw an industrial painter swearing at the sticky residue his tape left on a car.

Post-it Notes

The 3M employee, Richard Carlton, saw a need for tape with a non-sticky glue (which wouldn’t leave residue), and eventually developed Scotch masking tape. Later, using the same non-sticky glue technology, 3M came out with Post-it Notes. Who would have thought Post-it notes would come out of a mineral mining company?

CNN has a fascinating article on the unexpected twists and turns 3M has taken since its inception. According to CNN,

After the development of masking tape, McKnight [one of 3M’s entrepreneurs] learned a crucial lesson about letting his engineers follow their instincts. He soon codified this lesson into a policy known as the 15% rule. “Encourage experimental doodling,” he told his managers. “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” Still in place today, the rule lets 3M engineers spend up to 15% of their work time pursuing whatever project they like. (“3M: A Mining Company Built on a Mistake …”)

Based on the success from the unexpected innovation, 3M has adopted additional policies to encourage free thinking and innovation.

Craig Newmark, Craigslist founderCraigslist

With Craigslist, Craig Newmark’s original intent wasn’t to build a community-information-and-exchange site for all the U.S. Instead, he began using e-mail to let his friends know about cool events taking place around San Francisco. When e-mail would no longer support the demands of the information, Craig evolved the site into the popular Craigslist site it is today. (For a podcast with Craigslist founder, see this podcast from iinnovate.)


I can think of two other inventions where the original intention was different from the end result. I mentioned Pavlov’s salivating dog experiment in a post last week. Pavlov didn’t start out researching conditional reflexes. Instead, he was investigating saliva. Obviously he needed saliva from the dogs to perform his studies. As he rang a bell to make them aware of food, he discovered the conditional reflexes that turned the direction of his research.

Google AdSense

Google AdsenseAdsense, Google’s billion-dollar revenue generator, didn’t come about in a straightforward path of innovation. Integration of ads with user-generated content began with Gmail. The product manage, Marissa Mayer, nearly killed the idea because it seemed “creepy and weird” to pair up ads with matching keywords from email. However, the ad integration became popular and led to the formation of Adsense, which matches ad keywords based on Google searches. Adsense is now one of Google’s main revenue generators.

(For the full story on Adsense, see “How Marissa Mayer Almost Killed Adsense,” from Blogoscoped. I also wrote briefly about it here.)

It’s no secret that Google employees are given a small chunk of time to pursue personal, creative projects. David Vise and Mark Malseed in The Google Story explain the 20% free time to be creative that all Google employees enjoy:

At Google there is a 20 percent rule, that encourages employees to be creative and innovative. Employees are told to work on their own interests for 20 percent of their time, or one day per week. These projects are encouraged to spark the creativity of Google’s employees and to motivate them to come up with new products and ideas. To quote Krishna Baharat from Google (who developed Google News as one of his 20 percent projects), “The 20 percent time was invented for people to just explore. People are productive when they are working on things they see as important or they have invented, or are working on something they are passionate about. This is also an opportunity to get bottom-up innovation. There is only so much that top management can specify or ordain.” (Vise, 2005, p. 132). Employees have some flexibility around their 20 percent time — they can use it weekly, or pool it, to spend more concentrated time on their projects. (Quoted from Information Visualization)

Having 20 percent of your time to pursue your own projects helps make you passionate and extra-engaged about those projects (unlike some other project that may have been forced on you).

At the last STC conference, I attended a panel on career strategies that included Andrea Ames, an information strategist (tech writer) at IBM. If I remember correctly, Ames explained that at IBM, each Friday they have a four-hour sacred block where they set aside their regular projects and reflect. This period of reflection can help fuel new ideas and innovation.

Should Technical Writers Have a 20% Rule?

Definitely, technical writers should have time to innovate. Often when I read about research and innovation and inventions of new products, technical communication is not the first thing that comes to mind. Technical communication brings up associations of the realm of the known, the tedious, humdrum task of explaining what’s already built. People think we’re only describing inventions, documenting in the footsteps of innovators.

But that mindset is wrong. The field of technical writing poses many challenges that have simply been considered unsolvable. With Web 2.0 technologies, we’re on the brink of major transformations in the field.

I’m not sure a 20% rule will result in innovation, but it can encourage an innovative environment. Encouraging tech writers to take risks, allowing them to explore new deliverables and alternative methods for gathering information, not locking down their computers with a rigid lists approved applications and old-fashioned style guide rules — all this can help writers become innovators.

What do you think needs innovation in the field of technical communication?

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

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  • Dan

    Hey Tom,

    Great post. Another good read on innovation is “Weird Ideas that Work” by Robert Sutton. As a manager, I struggle with implementing innovations that we have. It is a battle between getting the appropriate sponsor-level support to be able to institute the change and getting the complacent writers to try something new. If you don’t have buy in from both sides, it seems like it’s more frustrating than it’s worth. I know that it’s not (big picture), but when you are in the middle of it, it can be frustrating to everyone.

  • Dawn Baird

    Fascinating, especially the 20% idea! If only employers in Northern Ireland would experiment such a concept…

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  • Tim Mantyla

    On the 20% rule–great idea! This works for people who believe they are creative and innovative, and have the insight to do their own research and find out if something has legs to run, with the proper support.

    As for those who *just like to do their jobs*, it won’t work. I suspect a fair number of people fall into that category, including tech writers. But many of those, I would guess, become accountants and other number-crunching types.

    I don’t know, though, since I’m in the creative communicator category, and don’t know what it’s like not to be. I can’t seem to stop generating ideas. It’s which ones to focus on and how to market them that I find difficult.

    I believe most companies could do better by at least asking employees their opinions on how they, their department and the company could do better. People often know exactly what bogs them down.

    Sometimes the company needs a consultant to tell it what the employees have been saying for years!

    Many companies I’ve been involved with don’t trust the employees enough, in terms of intelligence or insight, or authority, to let them make or even recommend changes that could rev the organization into a higher gear.

    And I’d guess that most employees would be more excited about their jobs if they had more involvement and engagement, and were asked their opinions by management. And in my experience, that’s a rare treat offered by management.

    The Japanese incorporate this kind of request for innovation and improvement in daily worklife. They call it “kaizen,” which means “improvement.” Many small improvements lead to much larger steps over time and en masse.

    Some Japanese companies, like Toyota and Honda, seem able to master the art of getting the best and most ideas from employees. At least, that’s how it looks from the outside. (One never knows unless you do the job for a while.)

    And look where they are now: They make the best quality cars, and are generally way ahead of US automakers in areas like fuel economy and styling.

    If US companies want to follow IBM’s and Google’s examples, they need to support some creativity and independent judgment in their employees. Many people have vision, creativity, observational and analytical skills, and I believe these are vastly underused by most managers in the US.

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  • Tim Mantyla

    To answer the question “What needs innovation in the field of technical communication?”

    For one, let the tech writer research the best tools for the job, and learn about how the communication function works (or doesn’t) throughout the entire company. For very large companies, this may be almost impossible. That’s the communication department’s job.

    But it could prove extremely valuable for smaller organizations.

    As an example, I found out about CMS (content management systems), DITA, single sourcing and dynamic publishing while researching HATs (help authoring tools). These tools are rapidly evolving to help companies coordinate the similar functions that communicators do, and the verbiage that gets tossed inefficiently from department to department, with myriad edits and content changes along the way.

    How could this work?
    Let’s say R&D develops a new product. They list the features that have been improved over the previious version on a document, which is given to sales staff to use for information valuable to the selling process. This list also goes to marketing, which adapts it to generate ad and other copy and collateral. It also goes to a training department, which adapts it for training various staff on the new product; and to IT for entering in the enterprise software so that sales and shipments and manufacturing processes and various statistics can be tracked. Each department has a different, and sometimes overlapping, use for the same information.

    All of these flows and changes can apparently be best managed by a CMS or dynamic publishing or DITA. But most likely, nobody in the company hierarchy except the tech communicators know this.

    One of the challenges is conducting a company need analysis and recommending this kind of software and system to the company officers.

    Tech communicators are among those best poised to understand it; so we need to learn to view our compannies and our jobs with a systems approach, not thinking “I’ll just do my little job and let someone else handle the big picture.”

    Then we need to learn how to present the ideas and new systems to management in a way that educates as well as fits in terms of the company’s vision, business plan and communications strategy.

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  • Tim Mantyla

    I just read a great article on the future of tech communication, at:

    This piece is apropos to the need for innovation in the way we think about technical writing as technologies evolve to fit societal and business needs and desires. It’s not a technical product innovation. It’s a way of seeing one’s work and deliverables in the bigger picture.

    Barbara Giammona writes:

    “A significant skill that I did not list is one adeptly identified by Jack Molisani, a former STC chapter president, whose business includes outsourcing and placement of technical communicators. He labeled this skill “the evaluation of importance,” the ability to recognize what is important in a situation or in a set of information.

    “I have been searching for a name for this trait for years, for it is a core skill that I have seen lacking in many senior-level professionals. It’s the proverbial ability to “see the forest for the trees” and to still know which individual trees matter. It’s the ability to ask the right questions of a subject matter expert so as to “cut to the chase” and not waste a busy person’s time. It’s the ability to know what to include and exclude from an explanation to make it accurate and complete, without being overly detailed. And it is absolutely crucial to success in our field.”

    This ability is related to another need that I see: the need for systems thinking in tech communication, and in fact, in business and society in general.

    Systems thinking is a skill and a way of viewing problems and challenges that I believe should be taught not only in technical writing curriculums, but all curriculums. It allows one to see
    – the forest
    – the trees
    – where one’s own tree fits in the forest and
    – a launch pad for changing and improving the forest

    Why is systems thinking so crucial?

    Maybe I’ll explore that question in a blog of my own. To be continued…?

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