Friday, March 11, 2011

No Vision = No Innovation

My son shocked my wife last night by announcing that he didn't think the space program had anything to offer mankind.  He had been assigned a paper in his middle school English class in which he needed to make a provocative point and sustain his argument with facts.  He decided to examine space flight and whether or not NASA would contribute valuable insights and technologies to mankind.  This from a kid who takes his telescope out on clear nights to look at the Moon, and Mars and Venus, and who saw the four visible moons of Jupiter recently.  In case you are wondering, he is 12.

I was convinced by his argument.  The problem that NASA faces isn't that there are interesting things to learn and discover, it's that NASA doesn't have a clear objective or vision for what it is supposed to do.  And I think that lack of vision is an incredible corollary for many businesses, who desperately want more innovation but just can't seem to do innovation well.

When I was my son's age, back in the dark ages, John F. Kennedy had created what seemed an almost impossible vision:  within the decade, place a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.  It was a bold, audacious goal, and we were in a race with the Russians to get there first.  By placing such a bold, clear vision for NASA, and by extension for all of us, he created inevitable momentum for NASA.  Of course the government had far deeper pockets then than it does now.  The question today isn't whether NASA COULD be viable.  Of course it can.  The question is:  what is our goal and vision for the space program?  We've become far too willing to take on "small bore" efforts that have small bore returns.  Rather than return to the edge of space, we need to think about the problems of space travel in completely different ways.  One question NASA should be asking is:  how do we transform space travel so the immense distances in space shrink to fit our short human lives? 

NASA lacks a vision and mission, and therefore can't justify large investments.  With small goals and small investments, we become familiar with the small achievements.  Are you aware that the last shuttle flights are going up in the next few months, and then the Shuttle program is done, forever?  Are you aware that means that the US doesn't have its own lift capacity, even into Earth orbit, much less going to the moon?  What happened to the program that put a man on the moon and returned him safely to Earth 40 years ago?

The same thing is happening to your business.  When your business was started, someone had a "moon shot" vision or idea.  They wanted to radically shift a market or solve a very important customer problem.  Over time as the business grew, visions and strategies got muddled as the firm had more priorities and unclear goals.  Most firms today have great difficulty describing what their goals and strategies are, and that filters down to innovation.  No vision, no strategy, no innovation.  Increasingly a business becomes comfortable with small bore ideas that provide only modest incremental improvement.  Eventually the market becomes bored with the offerings or some new upstart creates a new "moon shot" that dramatically disrupts the market and forces everyone to shift.

Who knows where the next space "moon shot" will occur, if at all?  The challenges and distances involved in space dwarf human comprehension now.  The only viable way to travel in space is to radically increase the speed we travel, or radically decrease the distances between planets and stars.  However, here on Earth most businesses don't face the extreme distances and challenges that space flight does, yet have settled for little vision, little strategy and small bore ideas.  Where's the clear vision that drives your internal innovators to greater success?  If you don't have that vision, what disrupter does?

This is an open plea to every CEO out there.  We all look at NASA now and ask, what happened?  How did this great space exploration organization lose its way?  What can we do to restore its vision and expand its mission?  Soon, the same may be asked about your company.  What ever happened to Company X?  How did it become so complacent?  Can we save it or is it doomed to the dustbin of history?  Every firm had a clear, compelling vision once, and every firm can have a clear compelling vision again.  What is your vision, your goal, your strategy for your business?  The lack of those features means your teams simply can't innovate successfully, and that means eventual stagnation and irrelevance.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:10 AM


Anonymous Rich Antcliff said...

I am afraid I agree, both with your point and with your son's. NASA could make excuses, especially with regard to the amount of political pressure that "controls" such visions. However, that is no real excuse. NASA, like any other entity, should be clearly expressing where it is going, not waiting for others to tell it. The unfortunate thing is that we need NASA as a driving force for US technical leadership, but it has absolved itself from that responsibility :(

7:25 PM  
Anonymous Copyright Litigation said...

Here is a similar story

Ask a triathlete about the challenges of an Ironman competition and that person will likely tick off an exhaustive list of obstacles. Of all the issues cited, eyesight is almost never a hindrance. Unless you ask Jack Chen.

The 36-year-old has been blind since he was 16, but that hasn't stopped him from competing in six triathlons, including last November's Ironman in Panama City, Fla. When Chen crossed the finish line he was the 13th blind person to complete an Ironman competition -- a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run -- since the event began in 1978. What made his performance even more memorable was how he was helped when a last-minute injury sidelined his guide.

"It's part of my personality," Chen said about deciding to participate in an Ironman race. "I wanted to show myself and the world that someone who is visually impaired could do whatever they wanted to do."

3:27 AM  
Anonymous Wolf Halton said...

This is all fine for us armchair generals. It is easy to decide you know what happened after the climax, when the players are all returning to the locker room. The next step has to be answering the question, "how do we create new grand visions to transform our vision of what is possible."

The basis of NASA's mission was "beating the Russions into space." Culturally, we seem to thrive on such sporting metaphors. Remember your favorite novel? It has a hero, an impossible goal, an antagonist (or perhaps other blockages) and after a certain length of time (300 pages or so) the hero usually wins.

I think the best way to develop a new vision is to throw out the spreadsheets for an afternoon, and make up the most farfetched, transformational end result you can think of - something you cannot possibly imagine happening, and work backwards from that in large brush strokes. This keeps you from being innundated (at least for the afternoon) in minutae and swarms of gnat-like obstacles.

Make your end result as amazing as you can, and the energy released by the exercise might make it possible for you to take a step in that direction.

4:59 AM  
Anonymous Deb Hess said...

Have him read the book "Inventions from Outer Space" and he can see how many products we use every day that came from the space program.

12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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8:47 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Fantastic! work on the role of vision in Innovation.

7:55 AM  

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