How to fall in love … with chaos

Posted by Janice Scheckter on 11 August 2016 12:25 PM CAT

Chaos is collaboration’s best friend. Why is this? The less structured the environment, be it virtual or physical, the more open it is for ideas. Many great ideas have been born in chaotic environments, not least of all penicillin and artificial sweeteners.

I first came across the idea of collaborative chaos in The Culture of Collaboration by Evan Rosen. His thinking made complete sense. Remember when disruption was a negative word? I believe as disruption has come to stand for process exponentially improved; chaos too will evolve within a collaborative era context to represent positive engagement.

Accepting that the collaborative organisation is diametrically opposite to the command and control environment of past silo-dominated entities, chaos for me indicates a free flow of ideas from many sources.

There are many noted inventions that have come about through chaos, the ability to allow free ideation and the absence of regimental control.  (Some possibly less critical to human evolution than others).

1. Penicillin

Sir Alexander Fleming was searching for a "wonder drug" that could cure diseases. It was only when he threw away his past experiments that discovery could happen and the powerful antibiotic, penicillin, was understood.

2. Saccharin

Constantine Fahlberg, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University was investigating the oxidation of o-toluenesulfonamide. He had spilled a chemical on his hands in the lab, believe it or not, didn’t wash his hands and on tasting his bread there was a distinct sweetness.

3. Fireworks

Fun for humans; less so for animals and invented by an unknown cook in China. Legend has it that while experimenting in his kitchen he accidentally mixed together charcoal, sulphur, and saltpetre - common kitchen items 2000 years ago. Once, compressed in a bamboo tube it exploded.

4. Scotchguard and Post-It Notes

Wow, two out one organisation, 3M. In the case of Scotchguard Patsy Sherman was tasked to work on a project to develop a rubber material that would not deteriorate from exposure to jet aircraft fuels. She accidentally dropped the mixture she was experimenting with on her shoe. While the while the rest of her shoe became dirty and stained, one spot remained bright and clean. 

For Post-It notes Spencer Silver was working on a strong adhesive. He created an adhesive that was actually weaker than what already existed. It stuck to objects but could be pulled off easily without leaving a mark. Years later a colleague spread the substance on little pieces of paper to mark his place in his choir hymnbook, and the idea was born.

5. Corn Flakes

While something the modern diet could probably do without, The Kellogg brothers, John and Will were aiming for a pot of boiled grain, which was left on a stove for days.

6. Potato chips

Another invention that in retrospect, the world may have been better without. George Crum a chef at the Carey Moon Lake House in Saratoga Springs had on his menu a plate of fried potatoes. One day a customer sent back his plate of potatoes many times and kept asking for them to be more fried and thinner. Crum lost his temper, sliced the potatoes insanely thin and fried them until they were hard as a rock. To the chef's surprise, the customer loved them and wanted more!

7. LSD as a drug

Albert Hofmann, a chemist in Basel, Switzerland was definitely not anticipating the first acid trip in history, but while researching lysergic acid derivatives, he accidentally ingested some, and yeeha!

8. X-Rays

Wilhelm Röntgen, an eccentric physicist was investigating the properties of cathode ray tubes and on shining light through the tubes he noted fluorescent papers in his lab were illuminated even though his machine had an opaque cover. 


While some of the ideas may have started with individuals many progressed into collaborations to truly realise their potential. Accidents and chance discoveries are just the start of collaborative chaos. An unstructured exchange of ideas is the starting point

Janice Scheckter, collaboration activist and co-founder of Indigo New Media, likes to believe she embraces Chaos.

Source: The Culture of Collaboration by Evan Rosen




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Love the article. Well done!

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Raashida Khan

4 years ago

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