Innovation is Built on Expertise
One of my favorite movie scenes is from the 1995 film Apollo 13. In this clip, it is discovered there is a potentially fatal filter problem on the orbiting Apollo 13 rocket that must be corrected. The problem is, there are no replacement parts on board the space ship. In a moment that calls for pure innovation, the engineers back at ground control gather in a room to solve the problem and are given these instructions:
“…We got (sic) to find a way to make this, fit into the hole for this, using nothing but that.”
(you can watch that particular bit of film by clicking on the link below)
The first “this” referred to in the above statement is a square box. The second “this” referred to is a round tube of the same size, creating the proverbial “square box fit in a round hole.” The “that” referred to in the above instructions is a bag containing only the materials available on board Apollo 13 to the astronauts. Those materials include a space suit, a roll of duct tape, cardboard, and other random objects. There is nothing in the bag of “that” the engineers are given that would suggest a fix to the critical problem, yet under pressure and through the process of innovation, a solution is innovated.
In this short tableau based upon the true Apollo 13 story, all of the characteristics and elements of innovation discussed so far in this column are in evidence: the motivation of innovation; transformative innovation; collaboration’s contribution to innovation; and the ethics of innovation.
What I like most about this scene, however, is what is not demonstrated in the short depiction of this history changing moment. Behind those nerdy eyeglasses, lab coats, and iconic plastic pocket protectors was a massive amount of knowledge and skills represented by those NASA engineers. There could be no innovation without the fundamental command of the laws of physics and mathematics possessed by that extraordinary team of rocket scientists.
In R. Andrew Lee’s essay You’re An Artist, Not an Entrepreneur, the author exposes the important underside of entrepreneurship and innovation:
If I have achieved some success in music, it is all too easy to point to these things and say, ‘Aha! Entrepreneurship wins the day.’ Let us not forget, however, that correlation does not equal causation. To describe me as an ‘arts entrepreneur’ is bad for everyone. It seems to imply that business savvy is what defines me and ignores the plethora of other skills, artistic and practical, that have brought me to where I am. To focus on entrepreneurship is to get only a small fraction of the picture, which could in the end be leading the next generation of artists down a path toward greater frustration.
As we enter a New Year in our work and creative endeavors, I wish us all a Happy New Year and an Innovative New Year. But, as we seek creative solutions and innovative responses to our challenges, it is fundamental to remember that if the wheel is ever to be reinvented, those who best understand the nature of a wheel will reinvent it. Innovation is built upon expertise.
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