Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation

Greg Laugero, President, Industrial Wisdom | 4/23/2012 | 23 comments

Greg Laugero
A couple of years ago, my longtime friend, Todd Neff, asked me to edit a book he was writing about how the Ball Brothers Company (the makers of mason jars) built a spacecraft that hit a comet 83 million miles away on July 4, 2005. As told in his book From Jars to the Stars, the Deep Impact mission is a story that appeals to those interested in the history of space exploration. It’s also a good read for managers who want to foster innovation in their organizations. I bought copies for all my employees.

We read a lot these days about innovation and “failing fast.” We read a lot about “lean startups” and rapid iterations to arrive at successful products and services. The Deep Impact story makes these endeavors seem simple by comparison, but it also puts these ideas in stark relief.

For those not familiar with Deep Impact, the objective was to send an “impactor” to hit a comet (Tempel 1) that was 83 million miles away from Earth and traveling at 64,000mph. The collision would kick up a bunch of ice and dust, which would be photographed by a “flyby” craft and several terrestrial and orbital telescopes, including the Hubble.

To spoil the ending (for those not already familiar with it), the project was a major success. The impactor struck its mark at the precise time and location as planned. The images returned were spectacular to say the least.

It is easy to think of this story as an exercise in explaining complex science. There is plenty of that, but this story is a good read for managers and executives because it covers so much about innovation leadership and management of massively uncertain endeavors. Here are just a few of the lessons that I derived from it.

  • Strive for a common, cannot-fail goal. At its core, the Deep Impact story is about a team of people committed to a clear goal: Hit a comet millions of miles away, so the results can be photographed. This commitment focused everyone involved so that they deeply understood their roles, their dependencies, and their relationships to everyone else striving for the same goal. No one in this story is punching the clock with no idea what the work means. Too many of our much simpler projects have no clearly stated goals and therefore no measure of success and no common motivation.
  • Embrace a trial and error mentality. People working on complex projects with massive amounts of uncertainty need to have the space and time to build, test, and learn repeatedly. Expect solutions to one problem to bring to light new problems that need to be solved. Failure is a byproduct of moving toward a common goal. Expect it, but make sure it yields knowledge of how to do it better.
  • Get creative. Creative problem-solving is essential to overcoming massive uncertainty. There is a great story about how the team conducted “acoustic testing” on the Deep Impact spacecraft. They needed to find a way to create 143dB of noise (13 times louder than a typical rock concert) to ensure the payload could survive the roar of the rockets. They turned to Maryland Sound International and borrowed speakers for an upcoming Hall & Oates tour.

There is a lot more to the story, including good lessons about keeping people motivated, dealing with partner organizations with different motivations, and delivering bad news early. Stories like Deep Impact help us see innovation at work in the face of complexity and uncertainty, therefore shedding light on our own management practices.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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Broadway   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/23/2012 10:37:46 PM
Re: "cannot-fail"
@David, do you mean a goal do important that everyone's willing to down with the ship for? Almost a military mindset?
Damian Romano   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/23/2012 8:56:03 PM
Re: Trial and Error
@David - Haha, may it never be! But you're right about IT. Living day in and day out in the data center you get to see a lot of things. I've seen so called "big initiatives" fall flat in less than 3 months. In that case, error. :)
David Wagner   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/23/2012 7:56:00 PM
Re: Trial and Error
@Damian- Don't let out marketings dirty little secret. They would have everyone believe that they have their discipline down to a science.

Interestingly, the IT department, at least good ones, might be one of the last bastions of trial and error in the enterprise. How many of us have at least one thing in our data center being held together with spit and bailing wire or maybe duct tape and prayer?
David Wagner   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/23/2012 7:53:25 PM
Re: Trial and Error
The interesting thing about embracing trial and error with somehting like hitting a comet millions of mles away is that there is a point where you can no longer make reasonable trials that show your errors. You can't throw up a sattelite and miss and go "oh well, get 'em next time." And simulations only go so far.

While I'm all for trial and error, what takes over for trail and error when you reach that point? Prayer? Heavy Drinking?
David Wagner   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/23/2012 7:50:52 PM
Re: "cannot-fail"
You suggest to "Strive for a common, cannot-fail goal," which makes I suppose... but do you really consider a mason jar company's goal to build a spacecraft and whack a comet 83 million miles away to be a "cannot-fail" goal? :) 

@Sara- Maybe I'm misreading this but I took Greg to mean that you had to pick a goal that was so important that no one can see failure as an option. So not a goal that you cannot fail at, but a goal so important that everyone refuses to fail.

Greg, am I wrong?
Umair Ahmed   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/23/2012 6:26:50 PM
Re: Trial and Error
But can they afford to NOT try at all?

@ Sara, I completely agree with you, and would simply add that no achievement can be earned without trial. If you want to be a market leader, you have to experiment your new ideas by reasonably try keeping risks of failure low. No business that wish to be in business can afford 'not to try'.

Damian Romano   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/23/2012 6:25:51 PM
Re: Trial and Error
@Sara - That's a good point. They should at least have some program in place to allow for it, outside of brainstorming session in the board room.
Sara Peters   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/23/2012 4:23:23 PM
Re: Trial and Error
@Damian  I understand that viewpoint: that companies can't afford trial-and-error. And I agree that, unlike universities, most companies really cannot afford to try and fail and try and fail and try and fail over and over again. But can they afford to NOT try at all?
Damian Romano   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/23/2012 12:35:53 PM
Re: Trial and Error
@Sara - Probably the biggest hindrence to the trial and error aspect among businesses is that they simply can't afford it. Though if you think about it, every marketing campaign is just that.
Sara Peters   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/23/2012 11:39:46 AM
Re: Trial and Error
I love the idea of embracing trial and error, and unfortunately I think that this idea is embraced only in university labs and the occasional R&D department. (And certainly R&D departments aren't the only places that need to innovate.) I think that most companies are so focused on immediate ROI that they quit too early and leave teams too little room for experimentation.
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