Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Rocketry as a metaphor for innovation

Have you ever wondered what it must be like to be the astronaut waiting for the rocket to launch you into space? Knowing the escape velocities required, and the amount of thrust necessary to leave the Earth and enter space, you'd be sitting on a lot of potential energy just waiting to be unleashed, to hurl you into a rather unknown and perilous place, to discover new things. There couldn't be a more apt parallel between this situation and the start of a new innovation initiative.

Just as it takes a lot of energy to get a rocket off the ground, it takes a lot of energy and momentum to propel an early innovation initiative to success. If you'll notice, there's not an incremental, push it along a little bit at a time and see what happens aspect to launching a rocket. The forces weighing against the rocket and the astronauts are too strong to take off successfully that way. The same is true with innovation. We need a solid launch, with lots of energy behind it to resist the cultural forces that will pull innovation back to Earth. With too little support, too little energy, too modest goals, we'll never get off the ground.

Like our hypothetical astronaut, our innovation teams are sitting on a tremendous amount of potential energy that can be unleashed and directed. Any organization is full of great concepts and ideas waiting to be directed. It's the innovation team's job, and the management's responsibility, to unleash and direct that energy and passion to create new products and services and eliminate the cultural barriers. Interestingly, after the big initial push, the ensuing work becomes easier, for the rocket and for the team, as you leave the gravity well and demonstrate success.

One significant difference between space flight and innovation is that the overwhelming majority of astronauts return safely to earth. Of course the failure option is not considered. On the other hand, many innovations will skip off of the earth's atmosphere and burn up on re-entry. The risk associated with failure in an innovation program should be much lower.

To recap, both a spaceship and an innovation program need to overcome tremendous pressure to succeed. There are no incremental launches, no half steps into orbit. Once there, the pressure to return an astronaut to safety is tremendous, while the failure rate for ideas should be reasonably high.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:41 AM


Blogger Matt said...

So, you don't think incremental innovation (as practised by nature, lone inventors, or grass-roots communities) can exist at all? Isn't it commercial inertia that you are talking about, not the innovative force?

Your metaphor is poetic, but not wholly convincing.

5:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read about a project called ray meds , it tries to change the combustible of the rockets !!

11:42 AM  

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