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.

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Greg Laugero   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/26/2012 2:58:21 PM
Re: Innovation and trial and error
Regarding "trial and error" and "cannot-fail," the heart of the matter (I think) is the level of effort you're willing to put in to identify and mitigate all the possible risks. One of the major challenges described in the book is that JPL and Ball both had different approaches to how they managed risk. For JPL "cannot fail" really means invest time and money in discovering all the possible risks, defining mitigation strategies, and testing the heck out of them. Ball, to the contrary, was more comfortable with accepting a larger degree of risk. The project was their for under-scoped and under-bid.

For IT projects, you might classify some as "trial and error" and others as "cannot-fail." In part, these classifications could mean the level of effort you'll spend identifying and mitigating risk.
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impactnow   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/26/2012 12:29:31 PM
Innovation and trial and error


True innovation comes from trial and error but we typically don't have the time n organizations to make errors the costs are too high both literally and figuratively so at times the error get batched and becomes good enough for now.

Broadway   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/25/2012 2:18:23 PM
Re: "cannot-fail"
And as for your 1980s movie reference, very apropos now that you mention it. I think that "save the factory" mentality is part of our American culture though ... Wait until near or post disaster to fix a problem, attack an enemy, etc. But once you get Americans pointed in a direction, look out!
Broadway   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/25/2012 2:16:16 PM
Re: "cannot-fail"
David, enron's stated goals were all la-la land stuff. Remember their old commercials ... They looked cool but didn't say much of anything steeped in reality. It was leadership and motivation by sleight of hand.
David Wagner   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/25/2012 12:58:35 PM
Re: "cannot-fail"
Ooops...forgot about Enron. Here's a thought. If you've got a big idea that the company is working on then broadcast it. Put it on a big sign outside of your HQ. Make it lke a REAL mission statement.

It is much harder to be Enron when your goals are in the light instead of in the dark of the board room.
David Wagner   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/25/2012 12:57:13 PM
Re: "cannot-fail"
@Broadyway- Interesting point of view, and it certainly matches what I see right now. But I'm wondering if we adopted this method of setting clear goals we can all agree are vital we might see companies who have not had innovaiton in their DNA suddenly find some.

I know this is cheesy, but i'm thinking of all those movies in the 1980s that were responding to the fear of japanese manufacturing. some slobby union guys would get together and suddenly build a bazillion widgets to save the factory. Obviously those are movies, but how many times have we seen people wait until they have to "save the factory" to really roll up their sleeves to get going?

If we come up with a goal as importnat and clear as "save the factory" people can move mountains. Or at least they can in Hollywood.
kstaron   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/25/2012 11:23:26 AM
How do make everybody get it?
"No one in this story is punching the clock with no idea what the work means."

I think that making sure everybody gets it, everyone sees the goal and the positive results of the goal is important in getting creative solutions to problems. What have other people done to get this kind of interest within their employees when the goal is so much less dramatic than watching a comet explode?

Broadway   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/24/2012 8:46:51 PM
Re: "cannot-fail"
@David, good distinction. But I'd posit that not all companies can be so aspirational in their goals. Not in their DNA. Or too dangerous, like Enron.
kicheko   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/24/2012 7:58:22 AM
Re: Trial and Error
Sara, - They cannot afford to not try. In fact there's something about those who make bigger sacrifices like Google....they make bigger gains. Then again it has to be thoughtful of course. But for companies that cannot afford big trials, they can start small or team up with the universities to make things cheaper.
David Wagner   Hitting Comets & Managing Innovation   4/23/2012 11:35:26 PM
Re: "cannot-fail"
@Broadway- Well, when you pu it that way, i think it sounds like a bad idea. But i guess what I'm saying is that a goal that everyone can get behind. I mean if you work at a company that makes jars and suddenly the CEO comes in and say you're going to hit a comet in space, that sounds impossible to pass up.

If you're a a company and the CEO says we're going to increase profit margins by 2% in the next year, you're not lkely going to get as excited. So, the CEO needs to frame that goal in a way everyone can get behind. or, ideally, he'd pick a more interesting but still valuable goal.
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