Blank’s Rule – To predict the future 1/3 of you need to be crazy

In a rapidly changing world those who copy the past have doomed their future.

When companies or agencies search for disruptive and innovative strategies they often assemble a panel of experts to advise them. Ironically the panel is often made up of people whose ideas about innovation were relevant in the past.

I’ve seen this scenario play out in almost every large company and government agency trying to grapple with disruption and innovation. They gather up all the “brand-name wisdom” in an advisory board, task force, panel, study group, etc.  All of these people – insiders and outsiders – have great resumes, fancy titles, and in the past brilliant insights. But unintentionally, by gathering the innovators from the past, the past is what’s being asked for – while it’s the future that’s needed.

You can’t create a blueprint for the future. But we know one thing for sure. The future will be different from the past. A better approach is to look for people who are the contrarians, whose ideas, while they sound crazy, are focused on the future. Most often these are not the safe brand names.

If your gathered advisory board, task force, panel, study group, etc., tasked with predicting the future doesn’t have 1/3 contrarians, all you’re going to do is predict the past.

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In the 1950’s and 60’s with the U.S and the Soviet Union engaged in a full-blown propaganda war, the race to put men in space was a race for prestige –  and a proxy for the superiority of one system of government over the other.

In 1961 the U.S. was losing the “space race.” The Soviets had just put a man in orbit and their larger rockets allowed them to launch larger payloads and perform more space spectaculars than the U.S. The new President, John Kennedy looked for a goal where the U.S. could beat the Soviet Union. He decided to raise the stakes by declaring that we would land a man on the moon “before the decade is out” (brave talk before we even got someone into orbit.) This meant that NASA had to move quickly to find the best method to accomplish the journey.

NASA had panels of experts arguing about which of two options to use to get to the moon: first they considered, direct ascent; then moved to another idea, Earth-orbit rendezvous (EOR).

Direct ascent was basically the method that had been pictured in science fiction novels and Hollywood movies for a decade. moon rocketA giant rocket would be launched directly to the moon, land and then blast off for home. But there were three problems:

  • direct ascent was the least efficient way to get to the moon and would require a giant rocket (the Nova) and
  • the part that landed on the moon would be 65 feet tall (requiring one heck of a ladder to the surface of the moon.)
  • it wasn’t clear that a rocket this big could be ready by the end of the decade.

So NASA settled on the second option: Earth-orbit rendezvous. Instead of launching a whole rocket to the moon directly, Earth-orbit rendezvous would to launch two pieces of the spacecraft – one at a time – using Saturn rockets that were then in development. These pieces would meet up in earth orbit and send a ship, (still 65 feet tall as in the direct flight mode), to the moon and back to Earth. This idea was also a decade old – it was how they proposed building a space station. The advantage of Earth-orbit rendezvous to go to the moon was that it required a pair of less powerful Saturn rockets that were already under development.

If you can’t see the movie click here

All the smartest people at NASA (Wernher Von Braun, Max Faget,) were in favor of Earth-orbit rendezvous and they convinced NASA leadership this was the way to go.

But one tenacious NASA engineer, John Houbolt believed that we wouldn’t get to the moon by the end of the decade and maybe not at all if we went with Earth-orbit rendezvous.

Houbolt was pushing a truly crazy idea, Lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR). This plan would launch two spaceships into Earth orbit on top of a single Saturn rocket. Once in Earth orbit, the rocket would fire again, boosting both spacecraft to the moon. Reaching orbit around the moon, two of the crew members would climb into a separate landing ship they carried with them – the lunar excursion module (LEM). The LEM would detach from the mother ship (called the command module), and land on the moon.landers The third crew member would remain alone orbiting the moon in the command module. When the two astronauts were done exploring the moon they would take off using the top half of the LEM, and re-dock with the command module (leaving the landing stage of the LEM on the moon.) The three astronauts in their command ship would head for home.
The benefits of Lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR) were inescapable.

  1. You’d only need one rocket, already under development, to get to the moon
  2. The part that landed on the moon would only be 14′ tall. Getting down to the surface was easy

Yet in 1961 LOR was a completely insane idea. We hadn’t even put a man into orbit, let alone figured out how to rendezvous and dock in earth orbit and some crazy guy was suggesting we do this around the moon. If it didn’t succeed the astronauts might die orbiting the moon. However, Houbolt wasn’t some crank, he was a member of the Lunar Mission Steering Group studying space rendezvous. Since he was only a mid-level manager he presented his findings to the internal task forces and the experts dismissed this idea the first time they heard it. Then they dismissed it the 2nd, 5th and 20th time.John Houbolt

Houbolt bet his job, went around five levels of NASA management and sent a letter to deputy director of NASA arguing that by insisting on ground rules to only consider direct ascent or earth orbit rendezvous meant that NASA shut down any out-of-box thinking about how to best get to the moon.
Luckily Houbolt got to make his case, and when Wernher Von Braun changed his mind and endorsed this truly insane idea, the rest of NASA followed.

We landed on the moon on July 20th 1969.

——-

I recently got to watch just such a panel. It was an awesome list of people. Their accomplishments were legendary, heck, every one of them was legendary. They told great stories, had changed industries, invented new innovation platforms, had advised presidents, had won wars, etc. But almost none of them had a new idea about innovation in a decade. Their recommendations were ones you could have written five years ago.

In a static world that would be just fine. But in a corporate world of continuous disruption and in a national security world of continuously evolving asymmetric threats you need to have crazy people being heard.

Or you’ll never get to the moon.

Lessons Learned

  • Most companies and agencies have their own John Houbolts. But most never get heard. Therefore, “Blank’s rules for an innovation task force”:
  • 1/3 insiders who know the processes and politics
  • 1/3 outsiders who represent “brand-name wisdom”
    • They provide cover and historical context
  • 1/6 crazy insiders – the rebels at work
    • They’ve been trying to be heard
    • Poll senior and mid-level managers and have them nominate their most innovative/creative rebels
    • (Be sure they read this before they come to the meeting.)
  • 1/6 crazy outsiders
    • They’ve had new, unique insights in the last two years
    • They’re in sync with the crazy insiders and can provide the insiders with “cover”

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13 Responses

  1. I agree with you, but my concern is that some will interpret your words to mean that there is an implied negative correlation between experience and innovation. In other words, older experienced people are “set in their ways” and do not or cannot innovate. It is simply not true. My experience leading/managing at least a few thousand staff members has shown me that innovation can come from anywhere. My ongoing observation of people from the perspective of a college professor teaching business model innovation and lean startup/launchpad related topics has further confirmed this. Inquisitiveness, curiosity and a burning desire to make things better seem to be better indicators of innovators.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You make the point well that it’s critical to have the ‘crazy’ thinkers in the mix for real innovation to happen in an existing system. And it’s clear you aren’t devaluing experience: that’s implicit in your suggested proportions for an innovation task force – two thirds experienced folks vs. one third crazy. Really interesting examples…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Steve….fun rules….and very clever too…Best. Kathy ________________________________________

    Like

  4. Steve, Thanks. Where did you get the narrative on the Apollo Project? My first job as an engineer was simulating the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous on analog computers at Honeywell Aeronautical Division in Minneapolis. I remember the arguements.

    Steve Barrager

    Like

  5. Steve, great post. I’m an entrepreneur http://www.nextgenmemorials.com and started this company 13 years ago thinking that baby boomers don’t want their Grandmother’s funerals, they are going to want a celebration of life. We design and sell products around the celebration of life idea and I wrote a book about how to do it, Planning A Celebration of Life- Amazon. As celebrations of life become more common, I’m thinking I need to continue to innovate. You got me thinking about finding some crazy outsiders along with some insiders to once again make a leap to what’s next. Thanks for the inspiration, you rock!

    Like

  6. Thanks, Steve.

    Good one!

    One of my most amazing brain stretch sessions was courtesy of Peter Schwartz [Global Business Network] up in the Bay Area on the eve of “Y2K”. He compared the world in 2000 to the state of the world a century earlier. He recounted how many different, highly competitive business/technology options briefly co-existed, amidst a welter of very different business and governmental scenarios, and just how weird and unexpected it seemed to so many people how things played out.

    He also predicted, in passing, that by 2020 “up to 20% of all existing business and professional fields would either no longer exist, or be ‘unrecognizable’ in their scope or scale,” to his 1999-2000 audience of CA execs and civic leaders.

    Many raised their eyebrows, and some openly sniggered.

    But hey, we’re 3/4 of the way to 2020, and Peter’s prediction is … eerily on-target.

    Best Wishes for healthy, happy Holidays! lee moldaver, ALE santa barbara, 93105 December 15 2015 6:09 AM, “Steve Blank” wrote:

    Like

  7. Great article. It is good to know that being crazy will pay off someday!

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  8. Bravo! I agree completely! This applies to hiring people too. We need the person who won’t “fit” or who doesn’t seem to match the job posting checklist of requirements, because those are the very people who will spark new ideas, throw a wrench in the old thinking and say, “but what about….” These people bring new ideas, and new ways of thinking about whatever issues the organization is facing. These are the people who approach it from an entirely new vantage point, or turn it purple or plaid and rotate it a bunch of degrees. These people also, importantly, have the courage to present their ideas. We also need to reward them for trying new things.

    I was one of those people, an intrapreneur who often was unheard – except for the times I was heard and we did hockey stick growth with “crazy” ideas. If the folks who hired me then has been looking to match a checklist, I would not have made the first cut. Luckily for all of us, the top brass wanted creative ideas and liked mine, and made it happen.

    Here’s a toast to those of us who are — and enjoy being — the spark, the catalyst for new thinking, and yes, oftentimes, the “rebels” who bring a different perspective and “crazy” ideas that take us to the moon and back. Thanks, Steve!

    Like

  9. Absolutely on point, Steve! Sadly, this phenomenon is also true for biomedical research – with the difference that unlike in technology and business, there is no self-awareness of the need of crazy ideas, let alone courage. The NCI (National Cancer Institute), part of NIH, is a good example: while dollar-wise it is the biggest supporter of advance in cancer research, it is also to the most dominant force that stifles innovation in cancer research. Clearly the NCI, however well-meaning, is itself the biggest hurdle towards a cure for cancer.

    The phobia for new ideas in the “review panels” at NCI (which evaluate research grant applications is staggering, typically mediocre researcher with a mind set on rigorous incremental research). A huge system of echo chamber, intellectual incest and self-fulfilling prophecy between investigators and reviewers has evolved that filters out any unorthodox ideas and thus prevents any progress. Willingness and capacity to evaluate the value of outside-the-box ideas has completely vanished from the NCI culture. Instead, reviewers are told to look for the “most promising applications”. But the problem is: no one knows the future to! The definition of being most promising is simply: she who makes most promises. This has created a culture of salesmanship to better sell conventional ideas (they call it grantsmanship – of which some are even proud!). It has hollowed out the actual science, and killed innovation and intellectual courage.

    The solution would be for the NIH to apply your recipe when putting review panels together, and include 1/3 crazy people in the panels…. But how to identify crazy yet intellectually rigorous researchers – a species almost extinct?

    Like

  10. Good post. Totally agree. Contrarian perspectives are essential for effective strategic decision-making and strategic planning. It does, however, require confident and forward thinking leadership in a business or government to succeed.

    Like

  11. Hi Steve,
    What group would you place yourself in?
    Crazy question?
    Paul

    Like

  12. great innovation insight ……I like it!!

    Like

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