Thursday, November 07, 2013

Why innovators are like astronauts

I'm in Washington DC today, preparing to give a talk at KM World 2013 on innovation.  I'm speaking today on innovation methods and techniques, but rather than simply list a number of innovation techniques or best practices, I'm going to review a Hollywood movie.  We're going to talk about the movie Gravity and how it relates to innovation. 

This talk is based on a workshop we provide called Thinking outside the Box.  Many of our clients want their teams to "think outside the box".  To do that, you first have to realize that a "box" exists, and think about life outside that box.  In doing that, we decided to use astronauts as people who definitely work "outside the box".  Astronauts work in locations with zero gravity, wild temperature fluctuations, and of course the issue of no oxygen or atmosphere for that matter.  In that regard, astronauts become very aware of working and thinking in a new box.

What Innovators share with Astronauts

If you think about astronauts, you might recall the famous book, later turned into a movie.  That book was The Right Stuff.  It celebrated the early astronauts, most of whom were "fly boys", test pilots.  These guys seemed to have less fear, more interest in testing the limits, and were volunteers.  These characteristics are also vital for innovation.  When you are likely to disrupt existing processes and practices, you need to have a much higher risk tolerance, and you should be a volunteer.

The Right Stuff notes that the reason we were so anxious to go into space was that the Russians were beating us to it.  When the Russians launched the first space capsules, suddenly we were behind.  The race for space became a significant issue, so important that John F. Kennedy made his famous request to send a team to the moon before the end of the decade.  When the Russians beat us into space, getting there quickly and beating the Russians became a "burning platform".  Similarly, innovation teams require a "burning platform".  Without a significant push or rationale, many innovation projects peter out quickly in the face of existing business as usual focus and time constraints.

As I noted in the previous paragraph, the race for space became a mission,  And every mission needs a chief sponsor, someone who defines the goals and places emphasis on the activity.  In the case of the space race, the sponsor was the president of the United States - not a shabby sponsor.  He staked his own presidential success on the mission.  He was clearly engaged.  Likewise, innovators need engaged, committed sponsors.  Without someone to provide resources, clear the obstacles and provide backing and leadership, innovation projects die.

What Innovators need to learn from Astronauts

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about astronauts is that they go into space to do things.  They literally work in the "new box" of space.  This means that they have to learn to work effectively in a very new and unusual box.  In space, there is far more risk to doing many types of work.  Low gravity means that many types of work must be done differently, otherwise Newton's laws will require that the astronaut shoot off into space.  Astronauts must learn to work in a weightless environment, and work in a clumsy suit.  Tools are different, processes and activities are different.

Consider now the innovator.  We ask them to "think outside the box", so they must work in a new environment where the tools and methods are different, risks are increased, processes are unfamiliar.  While they don't have quite the same level of hazard as an astronaut, to many the risks seem quite the same.  And, while astronauts prepare for years to go into space, working in near weightless conditions, using new tools, familiarizing themselves with procedure and process, innovators are rarely trained and frequently start innovation projects in the "new box" with little awareness of tools, procedures or processes.  For success, innovators need to train before they enter the "new box".

Finally, astronauts have an interesting end to their journey.  They ride a metal bucket through the atmosphere at hundreds of miles an hour, generating thousands of degrees of heat.  In many cases the re-entry is the most dangerous part of the journey.  Innovators too face difficult and uncertain re-entry, for themselves and their ideas.  Ideas that were generated "outside the box" often don't fit when they are attempted in the original box.  As we like to say, either the ideas change or the existing business as usual changes, and you can guess which one has more power.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that once a mind is stretched by new experiences it rarely returns to its original status.  The same is true with innovators.  Once they have truly encountered and worked in a new box, they are often disappointed and dissatisfied with returning to business as usual operations.  This is why "re-entry" is difficult not only for ideas, but also for committed innovators.

Innovators need far more training and preparation to leave their existing "boxes" and work in new boxes with new methods and tools.  They need to be proficient in the tools in order to do good work.  And when they do good work, they need help with "re-entry" - bringing the ideas back to the regular, everyday work world of business as usual, which is very likely to reject their ideas.  

What can we learn from astronauts?

 Granted, few innovators will face what Sandra Bullock faces in Gravity.  They won't have to work in zero-weight, in a vacuum, in a space suit.  They won't have to traverse from space station to space station.  They won't have to endure a red-hot re-entry on a ship breaking apart.  But most of us won't face these dangers. The biggest danger many of us face is failing in a high profile task at work.  There is great risk associated with doing innovation, especially when the task calls for significant disruptive ideas.  When executives start talking about getting "outside the box", for all intents and purposes you are leaving the atmosphere, and working in a new environment with new tools and heightened risks.  Good planning, good preparation, good sponsorship and a good plan for re-entry are vital to success.

In fact, the only real difference between astronauts and innovators is the space suit.  And perhaps the view.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:52 AM


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