business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

S. Donald Stookey was a name I had never heard before last week and now I doubt I’ll forget it. Because of a mistake he made on the job one day, Stookey changed all our lives, created countless jobs and reminds us once again that sometimes the best laid plans aren’t the path to follow.

In the 1950s, Stookey, who just passed away at age 99, accidentally created a synthetic ceramic glass that eventually ended up on dining room tables as Corning Ware. The story, contained in his obituary, is that Stookey left a plate of photosensitive glass in a furnace heated to 900 degrees Celsius, or 300 degrees hotter than he intended. A veteran scientist, Stookey fully expected to find a pool of molten glass in the oven.

Instead he found the glass intact, but now milky white and about to deliver an amazing discovery. Stookey removed it with a pair of tongs only to drop the new creation. Instead of shattering when it hit the floor the glass bounced.

Just like that, Corning Ware was born.

As Stookey began testing the product he found it was harder than steel, lighter than aluminum and nine times stronger than glass. It could go from the over the freezer and, of course, on to the table. It became a fixture in kitchens and the source of millions in sales and thousand of jobs for years to come. And it all happened because of a mistake.

Now the reality is that none of us works diligently to make mistakes. As Stookey’s obituary recalled, the scientist at first cursed when he realized his furnace was set to the wrong temperature. I’m sure we’ve all experienced that moment when we or one of our colleagues lets something go array.

But mistakes don’t always lead to bad outcomes because serendipity doesn’t allow it. Sometimes we stumble into great things when we least expect or plan it.

It occurs to me that we’d all be a lot better if we behaved like scientists and explorers a little more albeit without working in laboratories. Our lives and jobs are so busy that we too frequently forget to take time to break our routines and see what’s out there. Wandering Facebook is interesting, but it’s hardly a voyage of discovery.

In the retail industry discovery can simply mean visiting stores far and wide from your business and regular habits. It means trying new foods, viewing different television channels or even reading a non-business book. It’s simply about going where you don’t usually go.

In many ways, this week is a great time to pause and think about things larger than our daily grind. After all, today is Veterans’ Day, a time when we pause to honor those who gave so much to preserve freedoms for all of us. But let’s not forget the holiday originally commemorated the armistice that ended the “war to end all wars.” That was World War I, which, as we painfully know, was hardly mankind’s last war.

Remember also that two days ago we marked the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a moment that altered the world’s geopolitics in ways we are still comprehending. If that’s not enough, yesterday was the 45th anniversary of Sesame Street’s first airing. All great moments from the sublime to the rhyme.

One has to believe that the Muppets would find a really great way to sing about the power of discover and mistakes and remind us that sometimes our journeys take all kinds of strange twists and turns that somehow lead to great outcomes. Sometimes ordinary people become heroes and sometimes people power topples empires.

And sometimes an incorrect setting on an oven gets us Corning Ware.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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