Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Innovation is a harsh mistress

I'm a big fan of science fiction.  There's really nothing more interesting to me than to think about how the future will unfold, and science fiction is a great way to project what may happen with society and technology in many different future settings.  I guess this is also why I always advocate for trend spotting and scenario planning.  If we can begin to understand how the future will unfold, then we can spot new needs and create new products before markets and consumers are even aware - skating to the place where the puck will be, as Gretzky would say.

All of which is a long introduction to my post for today.  One of my favorite authors is Robert Heinlein, who wrote a number of good Sci-Fi books, each of which had technical but more importantly societal considerations.  One of my favorites by Heinlein is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, from which I've obviously borrowed much of my post title.  The book revolves around the idea that the Moon was populated as a prison colony, and over time an entire society grows up to the point where the Moon is somewhat autonomous and gaining power, and Earth isn't happy with the outcome, so Earth flexes its muscles and the Moon fights back the only way it can - by launching rocks into space that fall on the Earth.  Read the book - it's also one of the first places where "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" or TANSTAAFL, was popularized.

What we learn about the inhabitants of the Moon is just how treacherous their lives are.  The Moon is a harsh mistress because it is an exceptionally difficult place to live.  One small mistake can kill you, and hundreds of other people.  Air is at a premium, water initially imported and then mined as ice.  Atmospheric pressure is maintained by pressure walls.  Unlike on Earth, where a simple mistake may cause a small injury, on the Moon a pierced suit or a gap in a pressure wall could cause catastrophic death.

OK, interesting, but what's this got to do with innovation?

Innovation work is a lot like living on the moon

Ok, so we aren't astronauts.  We don't require pressurized suits to do innovation work, but in many ways innovation faces the same amount of risk and uncertainty that life on the moon creates.  Let me explain some of the similarities.

1. Getting into orbit.  On Earth we live in a gravity well.  The physics are clear - you either give the rocket enough energy to clear the well and get into orbit, or it crashes.  There are no other options.  Anything less than enough energy to get into orbit is fatal.  The same is true when starting an innovation project.  There is a specific amount of energy and support necessary from senior management and the innovation team.  Anything less than that amount of support and energy will end in an innovation failure.

2.  Living in space or on the Moon.  While we take for granted our access to free air, available water, and an electromagnetic barrier that keeps harmful rays from hitting the Earth, none of those factors exists in space, or on the Moon.  The only way to sustain life on the Moon is to carry much of your provisions with you, and burrow under the surface to avoid harmful rays and terrible cold.  In an innovation project, this is also true.  You are undertaking an exercise into the corporate unknown, where decision making, policies, corporate culture and investments are scarce.  You'll need to pack it all in with you.  What's more, on the Moon and in an innovation activity, even a small, innocuous problem can kill.

3.  There's no quick fix.  On the Moon, if you run out of a key resource, there's no quick fix.  It takes time and costs money to send more supplies.  Think of the astronauts on Apollo 13 who needed to make an air filter from random parts just to survive.  And they weren't short of oxygen - just had too much carbon dioxide.  The same is true with innovation.  Due to the way we plan and staff innovation work, you'll get less people and funds than you need, and money and additional resources can be hard to acquire.  If something goes wrong with corporate innovation, the quick fix is to kill the project or reduce the scope.

4.  It's difficult to "return".  Astronauts who leave the Earth routinely describe the re-entry to the atmosphere as one of the most harrowing events.  A miss of just a few tenths of a degree means that the capsule will burn up on re-entry or bounce off of the Earth's atmosphere and continue on into space.  New ideas have the same challenge.  Even really good new ideas must run a gauntlet of timing, project priorities, favorite products, successful existing products and other issues simply to get accepted, much less implemented.  New ideas have a difficult time entering the existing product development process.

For those of you who have experience in corporate innovation, I think most of you will nod at my description of innovation work and its similarity to a trip to the Moon and back.  Anything other than a simple incremental change to existing products presents challenges and difficulties that make innovation difficult - but not unrewarding.

What's required for success is a strong Mission Control - a group of supporters who are convinced in the success of the mission, and who provide the right resources, governance and support necessary.  What's also required is a group of innovators who are dynamic and flexible, who can adjust to swift changes and shortages, who can adapt to circumstances while keeping the goals in mind.

I think innovation can be a harsh mistress, one we approach with care and planning, with the full support of a management team that understands the costs and risks.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:06 AM


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