Saul Kaplan: Happy Birthday Bubble Wrap

If I had a dollar for every person I have driven crazy popping those addictive plastic bubbles…….. Today marks the fiftieth birthday of Bubble Wrap, the ubiquitous stress reducer disguised as a packaging cushion.  Did you know that this pop icon (pun intended) has over two million Facebook fans?  Did you also know that its inventors parlayed Bubble Wrap in to the juggernaut, Sealed Air Corporation, with over $4 billion in revenue operating in 52 countries?  My favorite part of the story is that the inventors didn’t set out to create packaging material at all.  Bubble Wrap is a classic innovation and unintended invention story.

Bubble Wrap provides us with an almost too good to be true invention story beginning as the movie script demands in a Hawthorne, NJ garage in 1957.  The narrative begins with two entrepreneurial-minded engineers, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, who set out to invent plastic wallpaper with a paper backing.  They thought there would be a market for plastic textured wallpaper.  Yuck.  Thank goodness there wasn’t.  Company legend has it that Chavannes came up with the idea for Bubble Wrap while coming home from a business trip and his plane was approaching the Newark Airport.  He was staring out the window on the descent and it seemed to him as if Newark was cushioned by the billowy clouds surrounding the city.  And you guessed it the rest as they say is history.

I love this story.  It reminds us of how most innovation happens.  Creating new ways to deliver value requires combining and recombining ideas and capabilities across silos in new and unexpected ways.  Our current assumptions and approaches to problem solving and solution development are never adequate.  It is only when we open ourselves and our organizations up to the unusual suspects and ideas that we create real breakthroughs.  Capabilities developed for one purpose are often underutilized until we learn how to connect them to potential new purposes.  We must be open to the possibilities and quicker to experiment with different configurations, which often open up new product, service, and business model opportunities.  Our initial set of ideas and approaches are almost always inadequate.  Success finds those that put themselves in a position to capitalize on derivative ideas at the margins.

Saul KaplanLet’s virtualize the inventor’s garage.  Social media platforms and networks provide us with the enabling technology to quickly connect ideas and innovators across silos.  We are getting really good at the connecting and sharing ideas part.  What we need to work on is how to create more purposeful networks.  We must practice doing more together.  Self-organization is the next wave of creativity and creation but we will have to get better at moving beyond the ideas to put the ideas to work in the real world.  Our virtual garage is loaded with ideas, tools, and motivated innovators.  Free agents are beginning to believe that we don’t need intransigent large institutions to make progress.  If purposeful networks can demonstrate progress on solution development and deployment capital sources will materialize.

I sense we are near an inflection point making this a very exciting time to be an innovation junkie.  If I am annoying you with my incessant bubble wrap popping, too bad, it keeps me from bouncing off the walls during these exciting times.  Happy Birthday Bubble Wrap.

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