Breaking Through to True Innovation

November 16, 2015
Written By Dr. Ryan Lowe


The speed of change has reached a velocity that is creating unprecedented levels of stress on businesses and increasing the competitive pressures in the marketplace. The interconnectedness of commerce through instant access to information around the globe has accelerated the ability of non-traditional players to disrupt traditional businesses.

So, it is more important than ever that your organization answer today’s challenges with breakthrough innovation -- but to paraphrase Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, many times you don’t have to look any further than your own back yard. This approach is timeless, and can be illustrated by one of the most innovative organizations in history as it faced a major crisis.

NASA, April 13, 1970

Two days into their mission and just minutes after a live television update was sent back down to Earth, a sudden violent explosion rocked the tiny metal cylinder carrying the Apollo 13 astronauts through space. In an instant, their mission to the Moon was scrapped, and the odds of the astronauts coming home safely looked pretty slim. Houston did, indeed, have a problem.

As harsh as it sounds, crisis is often the starting point for breakthrough innovation. If an idea, an invention or an innovation does not fundamentally solve a problem – perceived or as yet unrealized – then it is just an idea. In the case of Apollo 13, as Americans sat paralyzed in front of their televisions watching a real-life drama unfold before them, the carbon dioxide scrubbers began to fail, sending C02 levels in the spacecraft to dangerous heights. Everyone was counting on the brilliant minds at NASA to bring these men home safely, but those brilliant minds had to figure out how to keep the astronauts alive in the mean time. The folks in Houston were under intense pressure. And the world was watching.

The three men sat crammed into the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), to take advantage of the last bit of breathable oxygen, while they waited for a breakthrough innovation from the scientists at NASA. And back on Earth, the experts on hand at Mission Control dumped all of the available materials in the LEM and the Command Module out on a table. This is all they had to work with, and they had to work fast.

Fortunately, by using the items on-hand, they were able to improvise a new filtration system adapting a square canister for the round Command Module filter – and attaching it with hoses and duct tape in the LEM. To this day, their innovation is still called the “Square Peg in the Round Hole” at NASA. The ingenious fix kept the astronauts alive long enough to get home.

Far from being just an interesting retrospective, there are lessons here that can drive meaningful innovation in your business today:

Embrace Your Constraints

The limited resources NASA’s team faced were both a constraint and an asset. The one thing that the team in Houston knew for sure was that they could only work with the materials that were currently in the hands of the astronauts. Interestingly, that limitation combined with a life-or-death timetable proved to be a driver for their creativity.  

Look to Your Ecosystem

Often the innovations that make the greatest impact are born from using already existing technologies in new and unusual ways. Just like the engineering team on the Apollo 13 mission found out, our resources are sometimes there in front of us – we just need to look at them differently. You may not be facing life-and-death problems in your business today, but you can still drive innovation by starting with what you have as a powerful and enabling business principle when approaching challenges.

Create Meaningful Innovation

The bigger lesson that NASA took from this crisis – the truly meaningful innovation in the long run – was the necessity of having interoperable parts between components of future spacecraft. That insight has now become a mantra for engineers in many industries, making manufacturing more productive and economical.

Great innovations happen when organic ideas spring from the collaboration between individuals; however, you don’t want to wait for the crisis to enable your business to innovate. Enablement can come every day. You just have to create an environment to nurture it and then empower it.

This is an excerpt from an upcoming book, Box Breakers! The Secrets of Innovation and Creative Thinking in Business by Fredda McDonald. Order your copy on Amazon today!

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