From the Cockpit of an F/A-18 to IDEO:
3 Lessons in Innovation
– “You were a F/A-18 fighter pilot?”
– “Do you miss flying?”
– “Flying must be so different than working on innovation at IDEO. Right?”
Those are three of the most common questions I am asked here at IDEO. The answers to the first two are simple. The third is a bit more complex.
– Yes, I was a fighter pilot.
– Yes, I miss flying.
– Yes, flying is different than working on innovation at IDEO, but there are a lot of similarities, too. The skills I developed in flight training and as a young fighter pilot also are critical to being a successful innovator.
Here are three I learned as a fighter pilot that I use with innovation projects every day:
1. Be Committed and Willing to Persevere Through Setbacks.
Innovation requires perseverance and resilience.
In the Cockpit
As a student at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), I often sat outside and watched F/A-18s from the air station at Miramar† fly out over the ocean. I was enamored with the thought of being a fighter pilot, but the path from where I was standing to the sky seemed impossible. Still, I committed to the challenge and applied.
Of course, there were setbacks. In the first three months of advanced jet training, I failed an instrument flight. I was devastated. I knew failing the retest would end my career as a naval aviator, but I was not about to throw in the towel. With help from an instructor pilot and mentor, I learned from my mistakes and passed my retest and made it through the rest of training.
Three years after committing to that first step, there I was, a trained naval aviator sitting in the cockpit of an F/A-18, flying over UCSD with a big grin on my face. I had risked failure, persevered and achieved my goal.
† This installation’s official name is Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
Innovation is challenging and not for the faint of heart. You will face setbacks both in the design and implementation of your innovative solutions. Your reaction to the setbacks will determine your success.
Uber is a great example of a company that committed to and persevered through setbacks in its efforts to move into a service dominated by the taxi industry.
Like the traditional taxi, Uber moves people from Point A to Point B. It arose and has been successful because it committed to disrupting an entrenched industry that didn’t see the need to innovate. The taxi industry was overconfident in its position and saw no reason to improve customers’ experience. Uber offered a new service that improved that experience.
Uber’s success was not guaranteed, and its approach often has been controversial, but it designed a service that actually made it a lot easier for people to get from Point A to Point B. A widely accepted superior product has allowed Uber to challenge taxi laws and change transit practices in most large cities.
Uber showed drive, determination and a willingness to push through setbacks, and that is why it continues to grow and succeed while the taxi industry is struggling to keep up.
2. Have a goal and a plan, but be willing to change both.
Innovation requires agility in thought and action.
In the Cockpit
Before we flew a mission, we would articulate clearly the goal of the mission, our objectives and a strategy to achieve them. In our strategy, we outlined the roles, responsibilities, tactics, and mitigation plans required for success.
Planning was always a must, but I never flew a mission that went exactly as planned. Some came closer than others, but from the time you walked to the jet until you pushed into a target area, there were so many pieces of new information coming your way that you inevitably had to change some aspect of your plan, if not the entire plan. Failure to listen and/or adapt to new information could lead to a failed mission or worse yet, the death of a member of the flight.
Lean processes have their place in certain areas of business, but not in innovation. Innovation requires agility. Innovators must be open to new information and prepared to change directions.
The Post-It® Note and how it came about provide a great example of a business that was agile and adaptive to new information.
A scientist at 3M, according to the company’s website, had set out to develop a super-strong adhesive. While working on this, he accidentally created one that was just the opposite. The adhesive he came up with stuck to surfaces, but lightly. It came off easily, but could be stuck right back on surfaces and removed, over and over. Initially, this adhesive had no purpose at 3M, but eventually it was applied to paper so a colleague could use it as a bookmark. Soon, 3M employees began writing messages on these note papers and passed them around the office.
Although the initial goal of creating a tougher adhesive was not achieved in this case, the company adapted when new information and insight resulted from the initial plan. The result was a product that today can be found in offices and homes worldwide. (The Post-it Note story.)
3. Minimize your risk, but don’t eliminate it completely.
Innovation is inherently risky, but failure to innovate often is riskier.
In the Cockpit
Whenever we flew fighter jets off of an aircraft carrier for training or combat, we accepted a certain level of risk. That level changed based on factors that included weather and sea conditions, time of day and operational tempo. Flying fighters off an aircraft carrier on a beautiful day with calm seas is relatively low risk and a lot of fun.
When you change a couple of factors such as flying off a carrier into combat, at night, and in stormy weather, it’s no longer fun, and it’s very risky. Watch this Carrier landing.
In combat, of course, you don’t control the flight conditions. Sometimes men and woman fighting on the ground needed air support during rough weather conditions, but we had trained in risky environments. So, we had developed the ability to operate in any environment, including a hostile one. That training paid off when we eventually flew in combat.
Despite our training, there were times we needed to minimize our risk even more. Here’s how we did it:
• We understood the risk environment and our risk tolerance. On some dark and stormy nights, our risk environment exceeded our risk tolerance, so we didn’t go up. During combat operations, however, when we needed to provide support to men and woman fighting on the ground, we accepted a higher risk level and flew in some awful weather.
• We developed a set of strategies to mitigate our risk exposure: When we took off in bad weather at night, we recognized the increased risk level and changed some factors to try to offset our risk. On many nights, that meant carrying more fuel and sending up more than the usual number of refueling aircraft. Landing on a carrier during rough weather conditions is tough and dangerous. We wanted to make certain there were enough refueling craft airborne to enable our F/A-18’s as many landing attempts as necessary to ensure they got aboard the aircraft carrier. In short, we adjusted our plan to adapt to a changing risk environment.
Innovation also involves risk because it requires a commitment of time and resources even though results, whether they are incremental successes or transformative breakthroughs, are uncertain. This risk can discourage many business leaders from taking action. Today’s technology, however, is forcing a lot of industries out of the status quo and into accepting the need to take greater risk.
It may well be that the greatest risk in today’s global economy is the failure to innovate.
Blockbuster is a good example of a company that failed to accept a higher risk level and to innovate. Instead, Netflix, which itself flirted with failure, upped its risk level and embarked on a period of innovation that continues today and has transformed it into a thriving company.
Blockbuster failed to recognize that new technologies and business models would transform its video-rental industry. It seems that Blockbuster viewed its risk environment as being relatively low, which meant that its risk tolerance was low, so it did not innovate sufficiently.
Flying a fighter jet at 30,000 feet certainly looks and feels completely different from designing innovative solutions to drive growth, but my experience has demonstrated they share core skills.
In my capacity as a business designer at IDEO, I help organizations become more comfortable committing to and being successful at innovation. I don’t wear a flight suit anymore, but the lessons I learned in the sky help me guide clients toward embracing and fostering innovation in their organizations. I hope they are lessons that will inspire you.