Intentional Unintentionality

Spencer Silver failed in 1968. He was trying to develop a new super-strong glue for his employer, 3M, but instead, he created the opposite: an adhesive that stuck to objects but could be easily lifted off. He tried to get the folks at 3M to see the potential for his new adhesive, but it took them over a decade and input from other people before they agreed to distribute the “Post-it Notes” nationwide in 1980. The input came from Art Fry who saw a use where no one else did—holding his page in his hymnbook, which his bookmarks kept falling out of. When he added Silver’s mild adhesive to paper bookmarks, a rudimentary Post-it Note was born.

There is a long list of things that have unintentionally resulted from conditions and/or efforts that were intentioned for something else. Penicillin, the Slinky, plastics, and even the color mauve were all the unintentional result of actions taken with the intent to produce a different result. What kept these things from ending up in the trash was someone being willing to see things from a different perspective.

“It’s not only moving that creates new starting points. Sometimes all it takes is a subtle shift in perspective, an opening of the mind, an intentional pause and reset, or a new route to start to see new options and new possibilities.”  

KRISTIN ARMSTRONG

There are several stories in the Bible that demonstrate the value of unintended results, but my favorite one is about Joseph. Joseph was the youngest of twelve brothers and because he was his father’s favorite, he wasn’t very popular with his siblings. One day, they kidnapped him, sold him into slavery, and then told their father that he had been killed by a wild animal. Joseph had been given a destiny by God, but in that moment, I imagine things looked pretty bleak. Joseph ended up in Egypt and suffered more setbacks which resulted in his being imprisoned for several years. In the midst of this low point, God revealed His plan, and Joseph rose to second in command over all of Egypt and saved not only the Egyptians, but most of the known world from starvation during a seven-year drought.

When Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food, they do not recognize Joseph. Once he reveals himself to them, they are rightfully terrified that he will use his power to exact revenge. Instead, Joseph says something amazing, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” Joseph knew that God was in control, even of the “bad” things that happened to him. God hadn’t caused Joseph’s brothers to do evil, but He had used their actions to carry out His intention. What they meant for evil, God turned into good.

COVID-19 is bad. The downturn in our business is bad. Most likely, some of the decisions we have made are wrong. Certainly, not all our responses and actions have been pure. However, even within the prison of a global pandemic and unprecedented low sales volumes, God is still in control. The question I need to ask myself, personally and as a leader, is will I be able to recognize the new options and new possibilities that create new starting points.

Last week, I walked through our campus with the team that designed Cornerstone for us. The purpose of their visit and tour was to look at our current campus from the perspective of what can we accomplish toward our goals right where we are. The economy and factors well beyond our control have put our original concept, our intention, of Cornerstone out of reach. We could just see this as a loss, the death of a vision (like being sold into slavery and imprisoned), or we can look for the unintended opportunities and possibilities.

The same holds true for our personal lives. No one’s year went the way they intended. Each of us must choose how to view what has happened. Each of us must pick a way to see the world, either as a place of disappointment and loss or as a source of new options. If we want the latter, we must practice unintentional intentionality. There are some simple, but difficult things we can do to be more intentional about finding the unintentional gold in our lives:

Decide to start. Simply start looking around you and noting things that can turn into ideas. Imagine that you are someone else without the plans and expectations you have. How would that person see your present situation? In fact, it can be helpful to actually ask other people to look at your circumstances and tell you what they see. I reached out to the design team and asked them to look at our current campus in light of the things we wanted to do with Cornerstone.

Get good at pivoting. If you don’t like the view, look in a different direction. It is easy to get myopic about the future, especially when you have a dream or a plan that you are committed to. It can be hard to take our eyes off the road we wanted to be on and see the one we are actually on. I have taken the indefinite postponement of Cornerstone very hard. I really want that vision to be realized. For now, I need to see the opportunity where I was just seeing the death of a vision.

Iterate, iterate, iterate. The first few attempts, a number of which can seem OK, may not be enough. It may take several iterations, adjustments, and even rewrites to succeed. Interestingly, Cornerstone in its latest form is several iterations from where we started. The building changed several times, the plan for the site changed significantly, and the overall plan for development, well, developed. Going through more iterations is not failure; it is the evolution of the idea.

Don’t wait for conditions to be right. They never are. Innovation and creativity never flourish in perfect situations. Adversity, change, disruption, and even calamity are all fuel for the creative fire. While there are factors of prudence and acceptable risk to consider, many times we look for too many stars to align before we become willing to try. I don’t know when we will be able to build a new campus, but I know we can find something to improve our current one.

As leaders, we should champion thought processes that lead to seeing opportunity in the landscape of accidents and apparent defeat. What will be our penicillin, our Slinky, or our Post-It Note? How will history record us, as victims of circumstance or as pioneers who saw gold where others saw trash? Intentional unintentionality is the willingness to look at the world with wondering eyes and seize the moments that pass others by, and it is The Kimray Way.

Leave a Reply