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How To Turn Happy Accidents Into Groundbreaking Innovations

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Don Owens is the Chairman of HNO International and author of Burn Fuel Better: From Helpless to Hopeful in the Race Against Climate Change.

Have you ever been doing the right thing at the right time, allowing you the chance to be a part of something remarkable? Many people refer to these seemingly random acts as coincidences, but I like to think of them as happy accidents. 

A lot of tools that we depend on in everyday life were discovered by accident. And as a business leader or entrepreneur, those situations can make or break your career.

I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a happy little accident that caused me to discover a solution to help combat climate change. The knowledge I gleaned, the people who helped me along the way and the timing of it all were entirely happenstance, but I learned how to use it to ultimately pivot my direction and embrace a new opportunity. 

Many people have asked me how I discovered this solution to climate change and if it’s possible to create a happy accident that could lead to a breakthrough in their business. In this article, I share five ways to leverage the happy accidents that happen in your career or company to change the course of your life for the better. 

1. Do Something

The most vital thing that you can do to make a happy accident occur is something. It sounds almost too easy, but those situations occur when you’re in the trenches. If you’re not doing anything, you can’t have the happy accident that can become the catalyst for you to change the world. At the end of the day, as business leaders, that is what we all desire. And that desire keeps us going and trying different approaches. 

In business, very few of the things that happen are planned events. You may have goals, dreams and a general direction to go in. You may even have set things that you do every single day. But business doesn’t thrive in monotony. You aren’t challenged by the known. It’s those unpredictable situations that pop up along the way that help you learn and grow.

2. Embrace The Accident

When an accident occurs, realize that it was supposed to happen that way. It’s not easy. It’s not a reflex thought, and you may have to shift your focus. Usually, when accidents happen, we do not immediately see the benefit and are only focused on the fact that we are encountering a setback. But when you recognize that what you’re encountering is supposed to happen, it causes you to be open to change directions.

Sometimes people can be so stuck in what they think they want to do, they aren’t willing to see that there is something better right around the corner. Train your brain to look for the good, and you will start to view obstacles as benefits. Once this happens, you’ll stop dismissing what is happening and begin embracing it. That is when you start looking at your trajectory through a window of greatness. You’ve changed your perspective of failure into one of the happy accidents.

3. Be Flexible

You cannot predict where your accidents will take you, so you have to be along for the ride. That means you keep pushing forward when things get complicated. You may be forced to shift your focus or to change directions. Your flexible thinking is where greatness is born.

In my experiments, if I had given up after getting strings of dismal test results, I would have never found a way to reduce particulate matter (a.k.a. black carbon), which led me to a climate change solution. When you aren’t getting the answers you set out to find, try your best to find something good out of it and change your approach.

4. Leverage The Advantage

Your happy accident is a catalyst for change. It will lead you to places that you never imagined if you take advantage of it effectively. When your accident first happens, it always starts as an infant; embracing it and realizing the gift you’ve been given causes it to grow. As it grows, you start to learn and may have new thoughts, new ideas. Leverage those thoughts and that trajectory. The new, unexpected things that come up will create more accidents, leading to even better things.

5. Be A Part Of The Solution

Setbacks are only setbacks if we permit them to be. Accidents are gifts that lead us to solutions. These solutions may not be just for yourself and your company, but for humanity

When my happy accident occurred, I was not looking to learn about black carbon. I was trying to save some gas. When I set up this hydrogen system in the lab, I was hoping that the technician was going to tell me that I significantly reduced my fuel consumption. He didn’t. But he did tell me that I reduced something called “particulate matter” by 50%.

At the time, it was something that I didn’t even know existed. I then learned how particulate matter causes health issues, pollution, premature deaths and other issues. Although I was still unaware of the effects on the climate, this area was worth pursuing due to the endless data about its contribution to these health ailments. I consumed everything I could about particulate matter and eventually stumbled across an article that detailed one of particulate matter’s most destructive components: black carbon. The article explained how black carbon was 1,500 times worse than CO2, which led to my team and I inventing a technology to cut black carbon in half.

You can be a participant in a much grander plan that is bigger than any individual, company, country or economy, but it all starts with you and your willingness to be open to seeing an accident as it is — a benefit. When it came to my happy accident, I thought, what more significant advantage is there than an advantage that serves all of humanity and our earth? After all, isn’t that what businesses are created to do? 


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