The law of unintended consequences is possibly the only useful prediction tool in technology. Given the complexity of information systems and human behaviour, any significant innovation is bound to have ramifications that its inventors could never have foreseen.
Those consequences might be negative, but they can be positive too. As the following examples show, a technological breakthrough devised in pursuit of one objective can quite easily serve other, unexpected, purposes.
From a mediocre chess-playing machine that led to a cancer-fighting superbrain to a knowledge management system that can spot genetic similarities, they show how potentially world-changing innovations can emerge from unexpected sources.
The examples all derive from the technology industry, but there is a lesson for IT leaders too: if an organisation wants to innovate, it must have room to experiment.
Of course, not every CIO can introduce something along the lines of Google’s 20% rule – allowing employees to spend 20% of their time on whatever project takes their interest. But it is still useful to remember that giving technologists permission to pursue tangential projects can give rise to beneficial, albeit unintended, consequences.