Opinions - 12.07.2019 - 00:00
12 July 2019. With 600 million people watching, first Armstrong, then Aldrin took man’s first steps on the moon and made history. This victory, this goal set into action was set in place against all odds and despite many rational arguments not to do it.
From my perspective, this is actually a classic business theory case of disruptive innovation in that all arguments rationally speak against it: It’s too difficult, too expensive and there is no business case or precedent. When Kennedy proposed the mission eight years earlier to Congress, there was no clear plan or knowhow that would make his mission of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth…” and for many reasons, the project was seen in an unfavorable light:
Up to this point in history, the Soviets had a clear advantage in knowledge, know-how and experience as they were the first pioneers in space. They previously had success via their space program and their satellite Sputnik was the first one in Earth’s orbit and Luna 2 was the first space probe on the moon. The US has been a follower and not a leader in the exploration of space.
It could be argued as well that there were other economical and societal challenges in the USA in 1961 that could have benefited from the investment Kennedy made instead to the space program. Why to focus on a mission, which hardly brings back any measurable value to the electorate?
No one at the time saw the development of the technology that would be needed as a way to jumpstart new technology sectors such as the wide-spread use of Teflon technology or commercial space trips. From a business perspective, the groundwork was not done. There was no market analysis, no business model development, no serious business case, break even calculation… nobody even used a spreadsheet to calculate the Net Present Value. (NPV)
Instead Kennedy requested that the Congress give the space program $25 billion which was the equivalent to 2,5 % of the US GDP at that time – and he asked for it for 10 years.
The complexity of landing on the moon was enormous. There reception of earth signals on the dark side of the moon was not possible and in the moment of the landing, a huge computer was needed. With a storage capacity of 74 kilobytes and a processing capacity of 4 kilobytes, the 30 kg heavy computer was limited in its functions. The technology required for the mission simply had not yet been invented in 1961.
Another argument that could have been used to argue against going to the moon was the simple fact that the early attempts of the Apollo program was a disaster: Apollo 1 failed miserably with its goal to bring astronauts into orbit. Less than 18 months before the successful mission, three men died in the prelaunch of Apollo 1.
The program started with just a simple dream and the wish to implement the dream within an insane short period of time. However, it activated the resources of a whole nation towards a common and tangible goal… and I would argue this type of success fits seamlessly into the pattern of a typical disruptive innovation:
This vision was headed by a leader who believe in it and he possessed the communication capabilities to convince not just the decision makers in Congress but a whole people that it was possible. Most big leaps in industry, as well as in history, are driven by single personalities like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Winston Churchill. Many of those leaders would have problems in passing traditional assessment reviews because of their egocentric and lack of cooperation spirit.
Innovation is vision driven.
Professor of Technology Management with special focus on Innovation Management
Innovation is vision driven. Develop a dream, which combines the vision with clear measurable goals and a timeline and the innovative process starts. Kennedy’s dream was communicate simply and effectively by using two main pillars: One, let’s get our feet on the moon and realize our country’s potential by working together. And two, and more implicitly, let’s beat the Soviets and their communistic ideals.
The energy created by communicating this national vision brought all the best people together, from MIT to Stanford.
Another advantage was that Kennedy’s vision was long-term. Despite the high time pressure to achieve the goal quickly, one could reason that by asking for a 10 year budget, not simply for one or two years, gave the dream stability. Stock markets often fall into this trap by focusing on short term.
This high-pressure goal indirectly develop management excellence. By blowing the horn of nationalism and by setting a near impossible task, the project coordination on this was unimaginable. Without modern communication we have today, people were effectively managed. Project management and planning excellence also moved a giant step forward.
The Apollo mission contributed significantly to the development of modern technology and digital electronics. The information technology has been miniaturized, transistors came up and the architecture of microchips became an art. Moores law of doubling the information processing capacity every 18 months had the origin in the Apollo mission.
How should we learn today? Today every average smart phone has a higher storage capacity of many millions and a processing capacity of several billions more than the original computer of the Apollo mission. Today we have an incredible progress in knowledge but are we using our capabilities for higher public good? Is it time for the next Kennedy and an Apollo mission to develop the world economy, to overcome cancer or stop climate change? What would be today’s speech in Congress? It is time to disrupt again, maybe with bolder an even bolder dream then Kennedy invisioned.
Oliver Gassmann is Professor of Technology Management with special focus on Innovation Management.
Foto: Adobe Stock / Mopic