The Innovation that Launched a Thousand Ships

Innovation is of two minds. Harness both.

[Editorial Note: I have revised the original post to correct for the more advanced observations provided by Larry Keeley. See “Failure of Unintended Consequences” below. I remain in his debt, with a shout-out to Larry’s mentor, the late, great Jay Doblin.]

We find it essential to help business leaders contrast corporate strategy with innovation strategy. They serve different purposes and are constructed from different perspectives.

Growth diamond

They come from the same place, and coexist in delicate balance. The “Growth Diamond™” shows the two sides of this equation. Business strategy pushes the enterprise forward from the present. Innovation strategy starts in a different place, and pulls the business forward from the future. Of course there’s a lot to this seemingly simple distinction. For now suffice it to say they use different methods to solve different but conjoined growth challenges.

Both prove essential to balanced growth. Their differences arise from human nature. Most of us are programmed to push. A creative few are born to pull.

Roger Martin’s The Opposable Mind addresses the phenomenon on this very human level – it’s about how we’re wired to think. Most people live in the present and push over the next horizon. A small minority of people dream about a better future and (if they’re really talented and well-supported) reverse-engineer it from the materials at hand.

The best way to demonstrate the distinction is to share a telling example with you.

Designers Think Different (sic).

The modern distinction first appeared in the 19th century, as the partition erected within advertising agencies, well before the Mad Men arrived on Madison Avenue. It didn’t take long to recognize that the folks who can count are different from the folks who can draw. The folks who sell “think different” from those who design. The account side or business-minded majority wore ties, greeted clients, guided business and celebrated victories over well-shaken martinis. The creative minority were hidden in back out of harms way like some crazy aunt in the attic, to be gently harnessed when the coast was clear. They celebrated all along the way.

Innovators Plan Differently.

The two types think differently. So they plan differently. Business brains build corporate strategies that push forward from the present. At their most mundane, business plans often just take last year’s actuals and forecast them into the next year with a straight line projection of the current growth rate.

Creative minds, the folks who populate Innovation teams, build innovation strategies that pull from the future. They envision the desired future and then construct bridges from today’s position and assets and possibilities to reach that vision.

In my own teaching I’ve adopted a lesson from Larry Keeley, my mentor and the thought leader at Doblin Group (now part of Deloitte). Larry has for years hosted the introductory course for innovation in the masters program at the Institute of Design in Chicago. More recently, as business schools have come to recognize innovation as an important competence, they have added a similar course – or in some cases, as at Stanford d school – an entire new field of study. Larry was asked to develop such a curriculum for several prominent MBA programs.

As a foundation, Larry employs the same introductory “Innovation 101” course that he uses with design students. He retrofit the course as part of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business, in what is now the Segal Design Institute. He did not yet realize that he was about to bisect the lobes of our opposable minds.

Here’s how it plays out.

malaria killsLarry arrives on day one to bright shiny faces eager with anticipation. Then he simply issues a challenge.

“Organize yourselves into small groups. You have one week to solve the following problem. I want you to show me how you would eradicate the plague of malaria from the human condition within five years.

“Let me repeat. No malaria. Five years. How would you do it? What would it cost? See you next week.”

Shiny faces twist into quizzical expressions. Larry refuses further instruction. Several faces bloom to a warm rosy hue and – as he departs – bright WTF red.

A week later, confident future business executives present something like this:

malaria net“We’ve examined the possible solutions. Within five years a vaccine appears too remote to consider, but three protections can prevent spread of the disease by attacking the carrier – malarial mosquitoes. One – netting prevents access. Two – insecticide can wipe out populations and temporarily protect small areas. Three – mopping up stagnant water bodies reduces breeding grounds.”

malaria chartTeams invariably trot out clever combinations of these three – insecticide permeated netting; not only draining stagnant water pools but filtering water in safe wells, supplemental irrigation, impressive distribution channels; etc.

Spreadsheets project reduced infection rates, and lives saved per dollar invested. All very impressive.

Failure of Ambition

Larry offers his critique.

“You’ve reduced malaria’s impact and saved tens of thousands of lives at a reasonable cost. So apparently you missed the assignment. No malaria. Anywhere. You’ve barely made a dent. You fail.”

Indignant retorts exclaim that there’s no way to achieve this goal; this is the rational outcome, etc.

Then Larry shares a response from his Design masters students. They present something like this:

“Okay. First the good news. Malaria was successfully eradicated from the Southern United States, Europe and much of the Caribbean during the 1940s and 1950s. The problem is less about the technology than the social coordination required. So we looked at all attempted interventions in Africa, ground zero for this plague. Even in combination, none of the proven programs can eliminate malaria in the five year window, or hope to coordinate such fragile and disparately governed regions. So we need to start with what success looks like, five years from now, and then back into the minimum required program to achieve it.”

“Our calculations tell us we need to requisition the entire US Navy carrier fleet – Atlantic and Pacific. Depending on success rates we may also need to call on France and Japan. Fleets will approach the east and west coasts of Africa simultaneously. Tactical aircraft will be equipped with a highly toxic form of insecticide – basically DDT – deployed through spreaders. Think crop dusting with bleach. To wipe out this mosquito, a robust parasite, we must accept collateral damage. So we will need to offload the entire population of these regions to the carriers. Once clear, coordinate the launch of aircraft to carpet bomb the breeding grounds and infected regions from Western Sahara to Somalia, following wind patterns, moving diagonally south by southeast along both coasts.”

malaria carrer

“Over the next three years, we project clearing all of Africa of infestation, effectively eliminating transmission to humans. This comes at a massive cost to the local economies and endemic species. Corralling and collecting flora and fauna will require dramatic shifts similar to those used to rehabitate endangered species, but on an unprecedented scale. As in biblical scale; Noah’s ark scale. The economic cost represents approximately 3 to 5 years of the aggregate GDP of the affected nations.”

“Now unfortunately, only 90% of malaria infection occurs in Africa. The CDC has pinpointed smaller but concerning trouble spots in Asia, South and Central America. So, depending on early results in Africa, starting in year two…”

Failure of Unintended Consequences

Somewhere in the midst of this Larry calls a halt to the proceedings. He points out that no one could advocate DDT carpet bombing with massive unknown but adverse consequences.

He offers credit for bold aspiration and undertaking. But condemns any approach that presumes that the ends justify such devastating means.

Success = Bold Aspiration + Comprehensive Vision

The winning design team pushes one level deeper and designs a more viable solution: a radical approach to experimental biocontrol. 

The team explains that this presents the best current theory for massively changing the population of Anopheles mosquitoes, replacing the DDT approach with genetic disruption.

“We would flood the target zones (arenas most affected by dengue, malaria, aids, West Nile, Filariasis, and a variety of different forms of encephalitis) with vast quantities of sterile males. Remember that the females are the ones that bite.”

[For those interested in the details of this critical battle against “diseases of poverty”, Larry provided me this explanation: flooding the field with 1000:1 sterile males massively interferes with the population reproduction. There is a variant of this approach being used experimentally now, where the males in subsequent generations cannot reproduce without using an antibiotic, tetracycline, so that the experiment could be reversed once the vectors of transmission were sufficiently interrupted to create herd immunity in the reservoirs of these dangerous diseases.]

Larry congratulates the winning design team with this conclusion:

“We should not accept anything other than a radical, overwhelmingly effective treatment. BUT, to have a shot at providing both a feasible AND viable solution, I would expect it to ensure against unintended harm and collateral damage.

And a Cherry on Top

“Finally – and none of you presented this level of thinking – I would want fail safe strategies that allow the experiment to be reversed ultimately.”

You get the point. You want big results? You better think big. You want high return? You better accept high risk – and then introduce a second level of determined research and innovation design to mitigate it.

Then, once you really know what you’re asking for, you can start to moderate the request and calculate the compromises.

Why such a stark difference?

Why do the MBA students consistently underwhelm, and the Design students consistently shoot for the moon? Martin, Keeley and others have offered their hypotheses, and I’ve formed my own from personal observation. This is not original – it’s the foundation of the rapidly evolving observations of behavioral economics. In short, most of us are wired to the present. We don’t challenge the boundaries. We don’t question current reality. We allow the very human, short-sighted default approach – to push forward from the known present into a predictable future.

By contrast, unfettered creative minds start with the desired end state – what does good look like. They work their way back, eliminating failed options along the way, until they arrive at today with the few surviving possibilities, no matter how daunting. Like Michaelangelo sculpting a statue by envisioning the figure trapped within and chipping away the encasing marble to set it free.

How would YOU describe this minority? Uninhibited? Creative? Intuitive? Completely bananas?

All of the above. I submit that the same design method that allowed Howard Hughes to launch the Spruce Goose or Elon Musk to launch Space X comes from this same entrepreneurial spirit of possibility.

Figure out what, then figure out how.

Howard Hughes' monumental flight ship, the Spruce Goose

Howard Hughes launched his monumental flight ship, the “Spruce Goose” in 1947, (ironically built primarily with birch wood); it still commands the longest wingspan in aviation history.

Sadly, most of us do the reverse. Maybe it’s not the designers who naturally think backwards. Maybe everyone else is looking at problems the wrong way around.

Bold challenges, innovation, new sources of growth, new anything; these all demand a design approach.

To conceive the new, think like a designer. Pull from the future.

Make Better

One thought

  1. What great examples showcasing the outcomes of typical MBA and design ways of thinking. As one who has gone through formal engineering, business, and design education, I believe that universities need to encourage more cross-pollination of students from different faculties. I was disappointed in how rarely design professors considered market size or realistic implementation strategies when evaluating student projects. We need students to pull from the future while also considering business viability, technical feasibility, and social responsibility.


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