Monday, July 11, 2011

The Shuttle program demonstrates innovation lessons

Friday, July 8, 2011, is a bittersweet day for every American, because Friday marked the last shuttle launch and practically the end of our space exploration for some time to come.  For those like me who came of age in the space race, the fact that we're reduced to hitching rides to space with the space agencies from other countries is astonishing.  Heck, we don't even have the means to rescue the shuttle, so the crew has been reduced to four astronauts.  But melancholy isn't the purpose of this post.  No, what I want to talk about instead is how a rocket launch is similar, and dissimilar to innovation.

First let's consider a rocket launch.  Years of planning and careful consideration go into every aspect of a launch.  Several exceptionally well-trained astronauts enter the cockpit and prepare to launch.  Tremendous energy is required to overcome the gravitational forces that would keep the rocket tethered to the earth.  The rocket launches, slowly at first, overcoming gravity and inertia, and increasingly accelerates until it is in space.  The actual work in space is almost an afterthought compared to the planning, the preparation and the launch.  Finally, after the mission is complete the astronauts must return safely to Earth.

Compare, and contrast, that description with much of what masquerades as innovation.  Instead of careful planning, most innovation is spur of the moment, based on a pressing need or a shift in a market.  Innovation, unlike a rocket launch, is often reactive rather than planned and proactive.  Astronauts proceed through significant training - many are military pilots, engineers or have highly specialized skills, and prepare for the mission for months or years.  In contrast, most innovation teams have exceptionally little preparation, are unfamiliar with important innovation tools and methods and have little time to come up to speed before they are expected to create a powerful and interesting new idea.  Training and preparation are at best an afterthought, and often simply skipped.

The rocket, much like an innovation project, is tethered to the here and now.  Both the innovation project and the rocket must escape the bounds of gravity, inertia and conventional thinking.  The rocket overcomes gravity and inertia slowly but bit by bit climbs into space.  Many innovation projects fail to reach escape velocity, captured by the gravity well of inertia, poor planning or poor alignment.  While both a rocket and an innovation project's trajectory can be carefully planned, both can encounter unexpected problems and turbulence.  NASA demonstrated during Apollo 13 the ability to innovate on the fly when problems occurred on the spaceship, because lives were at stake and people were demanding action.  When turbulence hits an innovation project, many times the project withers and dies, since few people are aware and the stakes aren't quite as high.

Both the shuttle program and innovation struggle with another common problem:  clear definition of the mission.  The shuttle program, along with the entire space program, has no clear mission.  Should it explore near space?  The moon?  The possibility of a station on Mars?  What can space exploration provide?  What benefits can it contribute?  What new research or learning is possible, or even desirable?  No one has clearly stated this since JFK.  Likewise, while many firms want "innovation", it often isn't clear what the appropriate outcomes or results should be.  Does innovation mean a new product, or a new service, or an entirely new business model?  What are the benefits of innovation to the firm?  How should innovation align to corporate strategy?  Both the space program, and many corporations, lack clear goals and strategy.  This makes it more difficult for the government, and for executives, to invest in the space program and innovation, respectively.

Both a rocket launch and an innovation program share one other significant attribute.  Both must come back to earth safely and with a specific benefit or outcome.  Fortunately, most of the space shots we've launched have gone into space and returned safely to Earth, having carried out an important mission.  Many innovation programs, after successful launch, flounder and don't return any valuable outcomes.  Part of this is simply mission definition.  Where people in space are concerned, returning safely to Earth is the only reasonable option.  Failure isn't an option.  Where innovation is concerned, the only failure is to fail to innovate and fail to incorporate the learning.  Every successful innovator has had spectacular failures.  What distinguishes them is their ability to incorporate what they learned into their next attempt.  Many innovation attempts fail at the start because executives can't stomach the possibility of failure, even when the stakes are much lower.

At the end, we've become far too comfortable with the shuttle and it's "delivery van" missions to near space.  That is a problem corporations confront as well.  After a brief surge of innovation, corporations become comfortable with the status quo and what was interesting and new becomes routine.  It's then that new innovations should take place, but in this case they haven't.  We've allowed the majesty of space flight to be reduced to the equivalent of a UPS truck.

Both a rocket launch and an innovation project are high stakes events that unfortunately occur far too frequently.  Yet innovation teams have a lot to learn from the space program, about defining mission, training and preparation, and overcoming gravity and inertia.  Will innovation efforts end the same way as the space program, with a quiet success full of melancholy or will we develop the strategies and goals to sustain even more and better innovation efforts?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:42 AM


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