Sunday, August 26, 2012

Dam Busters: The Best Innovation Movie - Ever

60 Feet From The Surface
Where do good ideas come from?  The best answer I’ve found is in Steve Johnson’s book: Where Good Ideas Come From: the natural history of Innovation.  Johnson takes us through a great journey explaining the power and capacity of our brains; how ideas stimulate our brains; and the great “ah-ha” moments of people Darwin and Einstein. 

The book is good stuff, but it’s confined on pages.  If you want to bring idea generation and implementation to life then you have to watch the best innovation movie ever: DamBusters.

Note: I’m not aggrandizing the movie or its veracity (nor do I condone the name of the dog in the film).  It was released in 1955 when much of the story was still classified in the filing cabinets of the British war office.  In fact recent documentaries challenge most of the portrayals in the film except for the courage of the war fighters. 

Having made my disclaimer here is a summary of the film.

Dam Busters is about the scientific and execution innovations needed to support the bombing of dams in the Ruhr valley of Germany in 1943.  The science innovations are attributed to Barnes Wallis who believed that he could invent a bomb to skip across the waters above the dams and then climb down the wall of the dam before exploding.  The execution innovations are attributed to Guy Gibson who was the wing commander of the 19 Lancaster bombers of 617 squadron that flew the mission.

The parts of the film about Wallis are interesting from a “game changer” innovation point of view.  Wallis scopes the problem then sorts through several hypotheses before arriving at the idea of the “bouncing” bomb.  Then we see him deal with the bureaucratic barriers of: orthodoxy and resourcing.  He is constantly saved by experiments that make his idea tangible to decision makers.

Getting the bomb is only half of the problem; the other half is knowing what to do with it.  That is, execution.  This is where Guy Gibson comes to play.  Gibson was only 24 years old (he died in a plane crash a year after the raid) and he had never distinguished himself academically.  His only passion was flying.  He innovates many new training techniques for his crews to perfect low level flying and navigation at night. 

However, flying precision is only part of the solution.  The real question is how to drop a bomb 6000 feet from the target, at a height of exactly 60 feet while flying at 240 miles per hour.  This is 1943.  Neither GPS nor Siri were around to help.  Gibson’s solutions are a schooling in how innovation should take place within organizations.  His answers are practical, elegant, and resourceful.
  • Flying at 60 feet: 
Flying at 240 miles per hour was not a problem.  Flight instruments were precise enough for this.  However, being exactly 60 feet off the surface of the water was a challenge.  Altimeters were not accurate at this height and eye-balling the height was inconsistent.

Gibson and his men worked on this but were frustrated.  Out of exhaustion Gibson decided to take a night off.  He went to a theatre production.  While watching the star performer he realized that she was captured in intersecting spotlights.  Bingo!

Gibson outfitted the Lancasters with lights on the under part of each wing.  When the lights intersected on the water the plane was at 60 feet.
  • Dropping 6000 feet out: 
Speed and height had been solved, but not distance.  Again, the answer was in ingenuity.

While mulling over the distance problem Gibson was playing with a wire coat hanger.  As he spun it around he had an idea.  Could the coat hanger be used as a bombsite? 

Gibson hypothesized that if held the hook at his nose there must be a way to determine distance from the dam.  The answer lay in the towers that were at either end of the dams.  Gibson figured that if the tips of the coat hanger were bent up at the right point then when the tips sited on both towers the plane would be exactly 6000 feet form the target.

The bomber crews didn’t actually use coat hangers.  They developed more sophisticated (but still rudimentary) tools; however, the principle was the same.  The dilemma of 6000 feet was solved.

Although I like the Wallis story, I love the Gibson story – it really illustrates the ideas in Johnson’s book.  I work with companies all the time who want to “innovate.”  They know their future is tied to their capability to innovate; however, they just don’t know how it happens.  They set innovation and commercialization goals; they ask teams to brainstorm and draw on open innovation; and if they do come up with ideas the ideas often languish in the land of dreams.

Clearly Wallis tells us that we need to hypothesize, we need to experiment, and we need to break orthodoxies.  But Gibson gives practical advice for everyone in business.  If we want innovation we need a few other things first, such as:
  • Knowledge:  Innovation isn’t for neophytes.  You need fundamental knowledge, and even mastery in your domain.  Gibson knew how to fly.  His solutions were rooted in his passion.
  • Stimulation:  Innovation isn’t for hermits.  Gibson had ideas.  His ideas were often unworkable, but he kept talking to people.  Stimulation begets more stimulation.  Serendipity comes from disciplined searching.
  • Soak Time:  Innovation isn’t for people on the run.  “Ah-ha” moments come from deep incubation.  Often our brains deliver us answers when we’re not looking - even in a theater.
What does the innovation capability look like in your organization?  Where will good ideas come from?  Are you giving innovation a chance?  If you need some guidance rent the film and learn from Barnes Wallis and Guy Gibson.

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