Innovation Through Necessity

Filed Under Innovation

Perpetual motion with broken light bulbs and glowing bulb

June 6, 2014

Two days after launching on April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 experienced a catastrophic failure when an oxygen tank exploded, canceling a planned lunar landing and putting the Astronauts on board in imminent danger.

The crew had less than 24 hours before they would inevitably succumb to carbon dioxide poisoning. They had limited power, a loss of cabin heat, and a shortage of potable water. It was a fairly hopeless predicament. Engineers had to work frantically in an attempt to come up with some type of carbon dioxide removal system, using only the resources immediately available to the crew. Imagine: no time, no alternatives, no resources, and a desperate need to innovate. And yet, they achieved their goal. The astronauts safely re-entered the atmosphere after engineers showed them how to rig up a system in time using filters, hoses, and duct tape. It was one of the greatest innovative achievements in the United States’ space program.

More with Less

In this nascent world of unlimited bandwidth, computing power, and human talent, it’s difficult to imagine an innovation that doesn’t require more of something. Perhaps we’re a bit spoiled by access to such unlimited resources. Perhaps we’re not truly that innovative at all given our expectation that there will always be additional resources. But what if that changed?

What if your company had to deliver your product with your budget cut in half? What if you had to deliver that product twice as quickly as normal? What if you only had access to half of your workforce? Perhaps none of us will ever be so tested as the crew on Apollo 13, but we should be able to be confident in our ability to innovate through necessity.

In my early years, I was truly blessed to have worked in the newspaper industry beside forward-thinking leaders who made a frequent exercise out of innovating with the bare minimum. We were constantly challenged with directives to increase productivity, or reduce budgets by seemingly insurmountable numbers. Amazingly enough, though, we achieved double-digit savings year after year. The company incentivized the program, which of course kept us motivated — but still, it didn’t stop the groans echoing from the boardroom each time we were asked to stretch our resources even further.

What I learned through those exercises was that it was almost always possible to innovate given fewer resources. And even when we failed to substantially innovate, we still moved the needle with some impressive resourcefulness. We re-engineered equipment to reduce failure rates, looked at other industries for solutions that hadn’t been applied to our own problems, and integrated and developed real-time Intranet reporting on production for improved analysis. We made massive changes to pay and benefits in order to incentivize the staff, automated processes, and moved employees around, reducing manpower through attrition rather than layoffs. It was challenging, but never impossible.

Embracing the Challenge

My experiences with the above have stayed with me every subsequent day of my career. For an entire decade, we cut budgets annually, increased staff compensation, and delivered better iterations of our product faster each time. The fact is, I’m not sure that we would have ever been as innovative a department if we continued to increase the resources available to us. It was the challenge to innovate through necessity that drove us.

It was never easy. It truly required an aggressive culture to achieve innovation, and doing so with hyper-limited resources impacted every aspect of our company — particularly our hiring practices, in which we strove to ensure that we found talented people that loved to be challenged. Not everyone does.

Perhaps it’s time for you to run your own Apollo 13 experiment. What if your team had no budget, no resources, and 3 days to figure out how to do the impossible? What could they come up with? Organizations should be confident that their ability to innovate well is not dependent on available resources, lots of time, and a hefty budget — they should, however, be damn sure their people are up for the challenge.