When Alexander Fleming, a brilliant but sometimes careless scientist, returned to his lab after a summer holiday in 1928, he found his work ruined. A bacteria culture he had been growing was contaminated by fungus and, as it grew, it killed all the colonies it touched.
Most people would have simply started over, but Fleming switched his focus from the bacteria to the fungus itself. First, identified the mold and the bacteria-killing substance, which he called “penicillin,” then he tested it on other bacteria cultures. Seemingly in a single stroke, Fleming had created the new field of antibiotics.
That’s how most people see innovation. A flash of brilliance and Eureka!, a new world is born. The truth is far messier. In fact, it wasn’t until 1943—nearly two decades later—that penicillin came into widespread use and only then because it was accelerated by the war effort. We need to discard old myths and deal with innovation as it really happens.
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