If you’ve ever watched a police procedural drama, then you’ve seen officers and detectives don bulletproof vests. I’ve wondered who invented the extraordinary material that can stop a bullet. After Stephanie Kwolek earned a degree in chemistry from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1946, she wanted to attend medical school but could not due to family circumstances. Instead, she took a job as a chemist at the DuPont company and became enamored with her work. While working in the lab, she noticed that a mixture of substances was cloudy instead of clear. Kwolek convinced her supervisor that this development was significant enough to explore and test. This led to the invention of “a brand-new polymer that was very light but stiff and strong beyond anyone’s imagination.”

Kwolek invented Kevlar — one of the strongest fibers in the world. Think bulletproof vests. Safety helmets. Suspension bridge reinforcement. Kwolek and Kevlar save thousands of lives.

You might say Kwolek’s unexpected cloudy mixture of substances was a happy accident, meaning a mistake or unplanned event that results in a beneficial outcome. However, Kwolek had to note the occurrence and investigate it for a beneficial result.

A Happy Accident and Mindful Observation

If you paid attention to your elementary school science teacher, you might recall the surprising scenario of the discovery of penicillin — one that surprised Dr. Alexander Fleming himself.

When Dr. Fleming returned from vacation to his untidy laboratory, he observed something that others might have missed — a mold (called Penicillium) had contaminated one of his Petri dishes containing colonies of Staphylococcus aureus (a bacteria). Dr. Fleming examined the mold and set a goal — to determine why it prevented the normal growth of the staphylococci. He went on to experiment and research.

If you’ve taken an antibiotic to cure an infection, thank Dr. Fleming for being alive. At that point in time, there was a gaping gap — there were no antibiotics. Dr. Fleming changed the world of medicine and our lives — an unmitigated gain for all; he wrote: “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”

What’s one surefire way to unlock your creative potential as a learning and development (L&D) leader?

Pay Keen Attention

In 1854, in his lecture at the University of Lille, another great scientist, French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur said, “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.”

To make the most of unexpected observations, practice keen attention. The history of innovation is littered with insights based on intelligence combined with surprising discoveries.

When you’re observant, what you see, hear, notice or investigate might trigger a goal, an insight or an idea.

Take George de Mestral. You might not recognize his name, but you’ve heard of Velcro, a combination of “velvet” and “crochet” (which means “hook” in French). While walking in the woods, de Mestral noticed that his pants and his Irish Pointer’s hair were covered in burs from a burdock plant. Curious, he studied the burs under a microscope to realize that they bind themselves to almost any fabric, even to dog hair. His idea was to take the hooks he had seen in the burs and combine them with simple loops of fabric. The tiny hooks would catch in the loops, and things would just, well, come together. De Mestral’s sharp observation led him to the goal of creating a synthetic fabric that would offer a new way to fasten things.

Regardless of the discipline, the thing about a happy accident or an accidental discovery is that someone must recognize they’ve made one — to see how it might benefit individuals, society, business, an organization or the planet. To unlock your creative potential as a learning leader, to capitalize on serendipity, cultivate your curiosity, be fully present when doing something, and focus.

Here are two exercises that enhance the skill of keen observation.

Inspecting a Raisin

When Dr. Donald Marks, professor and clinical health psychologist, held a workshop at the Kean University Thinking Creatively conference, he presented the raisin exercise. (You can use a raisin or substitute any other handheld object.)

  • Really examine the way the raisin looks.
  • Notice how it feels in your hand.
  • Feel the texture.
  • If you’re using something edible or a flower, smell it.
  • If you’re using something edible, taste it.

Beyond learning to focus, this exercise forces you to take careful notice of an object with which you’re rather familiar.

Exploring a Painting

Select a favorite painting to look at, either one you have access to or one in an online museum collection. Focus on a painting, as if you’re seeing it for the first time (or perhaps you are selecting one you’ve never seen before).

  • Focus on the shapes, colors, lines or imagery.
  • Notice the brushstrokes, if they’re readily visible.
  • If you’ve indeed selected a favorite, look at the painting with the goal of spotting something you’ve never really noticed before.
  • You can conduct the same exercise in your home by looking out of a window you’ve looked out of many times before. Look at the view seeking something you’ve never really noticed before.

Focus. Awareness. Being observant. Investigating discoveries. All of these lead to thinking more creatively, which can help you deliver more innovative and engaging training programs. Happy accidents occur; it’s up to you to notice them.