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May 15th, 2018

Moonshot: A Historical Lesson of Conflict, Urgency, and Innovation

Next year marks the half century since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. That historic, awe-inspiring act was borne of humble technologies and tools in the hands of incredible fortitude and focus. At a time when high-power computing is ubiquitous and affordable, it’s easy to forget that we went to the moon with slide rules, logarithmic tables, chalk, and sweat.

We haven’t returned to the moon since 1972. In many ways, we’ve accomplished little of similar magnitude since. What happened to the “moonshot”, and why do we rarely see them anymore? Is today’s business culture and marketplace so afraid of risk that they shy away from game-changing challenges?

If you look at history, conflict and/or the threat of annihilation has always been a crucible of innovation. At the dawn of World War II, aviation was still in its infancy with cloth and wood bi-planes being the state of the art. By the time Allied victory was celebrated, our strides were aimed solidly toward the jet age.

And consider the mid-1960s Cold War era. The Apollo Program was fueled by the Space Race, set off by the Red Scare. Around the same time as Apollo, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division was founded to radically change aerospace by breaking the Triple-Mach barrier and laying the groundwork for stealth capability.

These periods of accelerated innovation provide some important lessons. First, that dire straits have been the catalyst for leaps forward, regardless of the technology available. In short, if we’re up against a wall, we have a proud history of climbing over, tunneling under, or busting through.

Second, history teaches that the power of will, organized and unified around a meaningful goal, is an identifier of rapid innovation in spite of obstacles.

Tim Stevenson, chief engineer at Leicester University Space Research Center, says it best: “Apollo was the combination of technologies, none of which were particularly dramatic. Combining them was the achievement. This was a bunch of people who didn’t know how to fail. Apollo was a triumph of management, not engineering.”

So, if risk, willpower, and organization are the magic ingredients, how do we tap into them today? How do we foster a healthy sense of urgency without clear and present danger? Consider these thoughts:

  1. Reject the regular rhythm of crisis and calm. In many businesses, the shift between feeling in control and out of control happens quickly and easily. Panic erodes engagement and buy-in if it’s a common pattern. In the inevitable case of an emergency, calmly lead by example and act deliberately to identify obstacles and help to remove them.
  2. Build a culture that is centered on outcome rather than task completion. By carefully balancing autonomy and oversight, you set the stage for your team to breathe life into an idea and nurture it to a spectacular success.
  3. Provide accountability and support so that every team member takes ownership of the challenge at hand. By giving your designers and engineers the space to fail quickly and then adapt, you set them up to become teachers and thought leaders.
  4. Understand that apathy can often be more dangerous than error.

Too often today, “collaboration” is a tired buzzword without a true mission to rally behind. Complex and bureaucratic organizations can easily become disconnected from the big picture. Moonshot projects shake things up and break the status-quo development cycle while also generating big excitement. Perhaps your company needs its own Skunk Works—a place that is untethered from the grind of iterative product cycles and next-quarter market strategies.

What is your company’s moonshot?

Maybe a fresh set of eyes can help analyze, interpret, and engage within your organization. Good creative partners do much more than innovate your product line. When they’re given the latitude, they disrupt your culture and processes. The more you open yourself and your business to a trusted partner, the better they can orchestrate a broad and unifying strategy to be explored and deployed.

Don’t wait for a crisis to force a breakthrough. Generate creative urgency on your own terms. The moon is waiting.

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