Yes, the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt signed the secret documents to not only fund the research for developing a nuclear bomb, but he changed the view of science, innovation and destiny. Now, humans had a means for self destruction. More important, it now focused the world on bringing scientists previously doing disparate research together to solve a situation. They had to take a theoretical concept to fruition.
Not only didn’t they know how to do it, they had to invent everything along the way such as the first reactor to test whether fission would even work, and did all of this under fear that the Nazi’s were ahead in this same project and would deliver the nuclear bomb to Hitler first. After only a year on December 2, 1942, the first test of a nuclear chain reaction was tested in unprotected blocks of graphite. Hiroshima was just around the corner.
If Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi hadn’t delivered two letters to Roosevelt signed by Alfred Einstein declaring that this was not only feasible but possible (and Hitler might get it first and use it to control the world), the ways of innovation may have been different.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy declared that The United States of America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, at a time where less computing power was available than in today’s simple GPS units. Again, much would have to be invented and built just to be able take the next step. We went from not being able to put a Satellite to another of the greatest feats in innovation.
The US came from having only the V2 rocket remains and Werner Von Braun to putting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969. For what it’s worth, my father worked in White Sands, New Mexico preparing the site and delivering the V2, the beginnings of America’s space program. Along with Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon, we have velcro, microwaves, spandex, freeze dried food, wireless telecommunications and it sped up the progress of computers, all resulting from moon rocket innovation. Oh and IBM was instrumental in the design, development, innovation and execution of the moon rocket program.
Much of this focused discovery and innovation now is in the private sector. BusinessWeek just published a story on the World’s most Innovative Companies. In the top ten were companies you’d recognize like Apple, Research in Motion, 3M. Others were interesting picks like Toyota and BMW. Toyota for having developed the Prius and driving research down to the development cycle with suppliers to save on all parts. Untold in the story is the $500 million that it is spending in Formula 1, the testbed of development and innovation for cars.
A newby and somewhat interesting company was Starbucks, whose use of Ethnography to fuel it’s innovation.
Leading off the story and in the top 10 was IBM, but for a company that has been around for decades, it shows staying power. IBM has reinvented itself a number of times, for example when committing from a typewriter and tabulation to a computer company in late 50’s/early 60’s, long before most on the list were even companies.
IBM is so focused on innovation that it was the theme of this years Leadership Forum in Rome held recently. To quote Businessweek, “IBM CEO Samuel J. Palmisano had made the day before: “The way you will thrive in this environment is by innovating — innovating in technologies, innovating in strategies, innovating in business models.” This doesn’t mean relying on a status quo maintenance model of business, rather to be like the Manhattan project, gather the best minds and drive to success, inventing and developing along the way. Of the top 10, only IBM, P&G and Nokia had all three Product, Process and Business model best practices.
What is interesting to me is that the chips that are in most of the computers, cars and maybe even a coffee maker, much of the technology in the computers that did the design of the products and software development of the companies in the top 100, came from IBM.