Happy Accidents

Lee Kum Sheung - a happy accident story

One day, a roadside oyster vendor in Guangzhou, Lee Kum Sheung, was boiling a pot of oysters. He was laughing and joking with some of his regular customers, got carried away, and forgot to take the oysters out of the boiling pot.

He finally lifted the lid, only to see an ugly brown gooey mass of burned bi-valves at the bottom. But the aroma was quite striking and not unpleasant. He dipped his finger in, and gave it a little lick. Hmmm, not bad. His friends gathered round, curiously.

So Kum Sheung dished up some of the sauce to his customers. Hmmm, not bad at all. In fact, very good, Mr Lee!

From then on they started demanding his burnt oyster sauce to flavour other meals and dishes.

And the sauce took on a life of its own.

He bottled it, and applied a colourful label: 'Lee Kum Kee Oyster Sauce.'

That event happened 130 years ago, and the Lee family has turned that happy accident into a $15 billion fortune.

There is a great lesson to be learned here. We must be open to stumbling across solutions that we hadn't intended in our search for innovation. Experiments will go wrong, but it's what we take away from them that defines our learning and growth potential.

History is littered with similar serendipitous "happy accidents". Other products that were accidentally discovered include:

the microwave oven (trying to create an avionics radar)

chewing gum (trying to improve rubber for car tyres)

the slinky toy (trying to improve car suspension)

viagra (trying to create blood pressure medication)

penicillin (trying to study something in petri dish)

the post-it note (trying to create an adhesive)

etc, etc, etc.

So we may not always get what we want, but we must remain alert to something even bigger and better than we had in mind in the first place.

More instructionally, Charles Lee, one of the siblings helming the business now, has shown himself to be a great entrepreneur who displays enviable traits of risk-taking. In the name of speed and agility he is comfortable at the 60-70% level of 'perfection' to green-light an idea.

(I've done work with LKK subsidiaries and staff have confirmed it.)

For an apparently conservative Chinese family business in particular this is especially admirable, being equal to the US Army's 'Fog of War' GO level of 70% certainty.

Because Charlie knows if he waits for 100% perfection before shipping, the market opportunity would pass him by.

Or, in the case of his great-grandfather, he might've thrown out the whole batch of over-cooked oysters and started again, licking his wounds rather than his fingers.

#designthinking #happyaccidents #foodinnovation #oystersauce