Web Informant #348, 29 October 2003:

Shooting For the Stars


I had an opportunity to hear a talk by the former Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise last week. It was a fascinating look at a period of our technology history that I haven't thought much about lately. That combined with my role in giving out the VARBusiness Tech Innovator awards this week got me thinking about the state of innovation in our industry, and how much has changed during the past 30 years since we regularly put men into outer space and had so many moon landings that they ceased to be newsworthy.

NASA used to be a huge innovator. Its very existence inspired people to shoot for the stars, literally and figuratively. Looking at the history of the space agency from the 60ís through today in some ways mirrors the path followed by U.S. business.

Take Apollo 13, the mission that was supposed to be the third lunar landing but instead suffered an explosion that crippled the spacecraft. All three astronauts landed safely back on earth, and the events generated dozens of books and the Apollo 13 movie, which starred Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell. Haise was played by Bill Paxton.

Haise mentioned that at its peak, the space program had 400,000 employees in more than 40 states. But the more interesting factoid is that after the explosion NASA woke up 10,000 of those people and got them working together to get their flyboys back home. That is perhaps the biggest peacetime technological mobilization that I can think of. And I doubt we could accomplish anything near that level today.

What impressed me was how NASA could do such incredible problem solving in real-time and against such odds. The electric power levels that they had to deal with were on the order of a couple of watts and the materials available to the astronauts were crude and based on duct tape and not much else. To me, that is innovation and ingenuity at its finest hour. But was what really intriguing to me wasn't just the gear but the people behind the scenes that got the job done.

Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris in the movie) was the mission controller. His recollections of the event are worth repeating:

"When Jim Lovell called in with, 'Houston, we've got a problem,' my teams were ready. The tools to manage the risks of our business are leadership, trust, values, and teamwork. Leadership provides the direction, trust allows us to make the seconds count, values provide the chemistry that binds us as a team, and teamwork assures our ultimate victory. The most vivid memories are of the people in the control room. Four teams of controllers functioned perfectly, like an Olympic relay team, for four days taking needed actions, building the options, improvising and buying time. Our top-level management trusted us to solve the problems and then got out of our way as we worked. As the crisis unfolded and the crew situation became increasingly desperate, young people stepped up to the plate and every time I needed an answer, they hit a home run."

To me, thatís what innovation is all about. You have bunches of people that are organized around a common goal, able to work past their limitations and overcome their emotional differences and personalities and do something that had never been done before. You have a management team in place that can delegate and organize this talent pool and handle a crisis effectively and decisively, at the same time motivating their people to push themselves beyond their limits.

Sadly, this can-do attitude is missing from our current space program ó-and at too many U.S. businesses. Any quick perusal of the recent shuttle accident report will show you that NASA has fallen far short of the glory days of the late 1960s and early 70s. Management no longer inspires but obfuscates. Teams of people don't trust each other and become mired in promoting their own work at the expense of their colleagues. Core values are compromised in the interests of cutting costs. Risks and safety take second seats to getting more missions out on the launch pad.

All of this is food for thought if you run a technology company today. If you are going to be a top innovator, you have to assemble the right team of people. Forget about the widgets, you need to foster the same type of environment that Kranz was talking about. Thatís what we aimed to do at the VARBusiness Tech Innovator Awards: Honor those who werenít afraid to shoot for the moon. These are the companies who are not ignoring the tried and true, but going beyond it. At our awards ceremony, we honored 24 different companies and their products, from vendors large and small. You can find them on our Web site at http://www.varbusiness.com/sections/News/breakingnews.asp?ArticleID=45549

Maybe next year, your company will play among the stars.


Entire contents copyright 2003 by David Strom, Inc. 

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

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