Just as his own creative research has built upon the work of Skinner—and just as Skinner’s research stood on the shoulders of earlier psychologists like Edward Thorndike and Ivan Pavlov—Wasserman argues that all innovations, no matter what the field, are evolutionary. In recent years, Wasserman has devoted time beyond the laboratory to researching and reporting on dozens of creative breakthroughs for his new book, including Iowa-centric inventions like the Ponseti Method, the butterfly stroke, and the Field of Dreams. (See “ Three Iowa Innovations and Their Evolutions ” below.) The deeper he dug into the histories behind innovations, the more evidence Wasserman found refuting the “eureka!” moment—a concept that he dismisses as a naïve and fanciful explanation for human progress. “We’ll say someone’s creative or a genius,” Wasserman says. “Well, that doesn’t explain anything. They’re just words that carry no explanatory meaning. People have this idea of the moment of epiphany, but most moments of epiphany go right into the trash. We have a selective memory problem. We forget about the ideas that fail and remember the ones that succeed.”
As with many things, Wasserman is something of an expert on Post-It notes. He’s been researching the history of the ubiquitous office product for his latest case study on the psychology of innovation. While the Post-It note today may seem perfectly designed in its simple utility, Wasserman explains that wasn’t always the case. Instead, like so many other innovations, it evolved out of circumstance, trial and error, and a good deal of luck. Wasserman sits back and tells the story. The Post-It note’s origins can be traced back to Spencer Silver, who in 1968 was a young chemist at 3M working to create a heavy-duty adhesive for aircraft construction. But what he concocted in the laboratory was the opposite: an adhesive that stuck to surfaces but peeled off easily. Silver’s discovery was novel, but its usefulness wasn’t readily apparent. Years later, a colleague named Art Fry was in church one fateful Sunday when the torn slips of paper he used as bookmarks fell out of his hymnal. Fry had once attended a presentation Silver gave on his peculiar adhesive, and the idea stuck with him, so to speak. What if he used Silver’s adhesive for bookmarks? He pitched the idea at 3M but was initially told there wasn’t a market for it. Fry once said the real “aha!” moment came when he sent a report to his supervisor with a note scrawled on one of his prototype sticky bookmarks. His supervisor sent the folder back and added his own handwritten note on the sticky paper. “What we have here isn’t a bookmark,” thought Fry. “It’s a whole new way to communicate.” After 12 long years of development and marketing research at 3M, the rest of the story is now office supply cabinet history.
When Innovations Stick
Down the long hallway from the pigeon laboratory, Wasserman plucks a canary yellow slip of paper from the side of his computer. It’s a Post-It note. “Look at how purposeful it is,” says Wasserman, holding it in front of him like Steve Jobs showing off a new iPhone. “I’ve got it stuck right here so I don’t forget my password. I have it in books where I’ve marked passages. What a beautiful design.”
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