LAWG Week: Building Community: Failures and creativity’s nexus, and a nod to MESI

I’m Michael Quinn Patton of Utilization-Focused Evaluation. I came to the University of Minnesota in 1973 as a postdoc in one of the world’s first evaluation methodology training programs. Though I’ve been here the better part of my life, I’m still viewed as an outsider by native Minnesotans. However, they would appreciate making you aware of something that is special about Minnesota as the host for Evaluation 2019.

50th Anniversary Gold
Let’s talk GOLD. Not the methodological gold standard nonsense, but 50th anniversary gold.

This year we’ve celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, and the 50th anniversary of Minnesota’s greatest contribution to civilization. I remember distinctly being in awe of the moon walk, fascinated by Woodstock, and amazed the first time I used a Post-it Note. Post-it Notes were one of the first major technological revolutions in evaluation analysis!

The discovery of Post-it Notes by the 3M company is an apocryphal evaluation story, legendary in Minnesota. It’s a cautionary tale about being too quick to judge something a failure. Here’s the story….


Fifty years ago, Dr. Spencer Silver, a 3M scientist, was conducting research on adhesives in search of stronger and longer-lasting glues that could be used for a variety of industrial and commercial applications. In the process, he discovered an adhesive that stuck lightly to surfaces but didn’t bond tightly to them – basically a failed glue. No one, including Spencer Silver, was searching for a glue that didn’t glue. The product was a failure.

Still, Silver was fascinated. But for years, he struggled to find a use for his discovery. Enter Art Fry, another 3M scientist, who sang in his church choir. Every Wednesday night at rehearsals, he would use little scraps of paper to mark the hymns they were going to sing, but they’d all fallen out of his hymnal when he opened it. Wishing for a bookmark that would stick to the paper without damaging the pages, he recalled a 3M seminar he’d attended where Silver had mentioned his failed glue and search for an application. He had what he subsequently referred to as a Eureka moment.

The 3M company was initially skeptical about the product’s potential marketability, but in 1980, the product was finally introduced to the world. Today, Post-it Notes are sold in more than 100 countries.

Lessons Learned:

  • “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Louis Pasteur, discoverer of the process of pasteurization
  • What may at first appear to be a failure in one context may be a breakthrough success in another.
  • What we get may not be what we were looking for, but may be even better or more important. Complexity theorists call that emergence. 

Welcome – and a note on Minnesota etiquette
For those of you coming to AEA, welcome to the land that gave the world Post-it Notes — but don’t call them “sticky notes” – They are Post-it Notes!

Top 10 lists

In the spirit of MESI’s Top 10 lists, here are 10 things accidentally discovered.

10. Play-doh

9. Fireworks

8. Potato Chips

7. Slinky

6. Saccharin

5. Silly putty

4. Microwave ovens

3. Corn flakes

2. Post-it Notes

1. Evaluation as a career.

All evaluation old-timers are “accidental evaluators.”  50 years ago there was no career in evaluation to choose, no global profession of evaluation practitioners imagined, and no evaluation standards or guiding principles – AND no evaluation competencies. They were birthed in Minnesota by MESI mother Jean King and nurtured into acceptance over years of development and advocacy. This year we celebrate the first-year anniversary (paper anniversary) of the AEA Evaluation Competencies. Thank you, Jean. Let’s have a party in 50 years to celebrate a world of competent evaluators. Imagine that!

We’re looking forward to the fall and the Evaluation 2019  conference all this week with our colleagues in the Local Arrangements Working Group (LAWG). Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to contribute to aea365? Review the contribution guidelines and send your draft post to

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