Look around you. How many of the man-made objects you see have come from one of the world’s explorers?
As a former Arctic expedition leader, and now innovation researcher, I began to notice some years ago that most things, from a simple shirt collar to the most sophisticated computers, originated with someone with extreme needs pushing the boundaries of human ability. And having been in these positions myself, I began to explore why. In working with many large companies, I saw a serious difference between the R&D shop floor and hanging off a cliff: namely, that failure is not an option when human life is on the line, and this tends to make you act with a bit more urgency than the KPIs your boss may have given you.
The highly constrained and extreme circumstances that explorers face provides a fertile ground for the birth of the most cutting-edge technologies–and the fact that lives are at stake means these technologies cannot fail. Remarkably, the discoveries that happen here end up more often being widely applicable than from any other source, and many of them–think GoPro–have become multibillion-dollar companies alone.
Like explorers, innovators are groundbreakers. They venture beyond the boundaries of our everyday knowledge to discover new ways of doing things. Countless inventions, like Velcro and the iPod, have been triggered by the same kinds of extreme constraints and challenges that real explorers face. When Arctic explorer Will Steger needed a way to see the sleds in front of and behind him in the dark Arctic nights on his North Pole expeditions, Land’s End worked with him to invent a special reflective tape. For the price of a small development project, Land’s End got a product it made serious money on. That tape is now used worldwide on every safety coat, bike gear, and running shoe.
Land’s End is not alone in using exploration to fuel invention. In studying more than 2,000 companies, the World Database of Innovation Initiative (WDI) has discovered that many of the highest-growth companies share one peculiarity: They invest in someone or something exploring the edge of human ability
We found that a number of the fastest-growing companies, and those who are repeat innovators, have structured their own unique “exploration practices” in several ways. Here are the five approaches that have the highest return.
Many repeat innovators have found a field of sport, exploration, or science that required their product, expertise, or service, and have invested in its success. Because of the attention it attracts and the constraints it imposes, this practice results in the most interesting discoveries as well as faster to-market timelines than a traditional approach.
GoPro and other companies invested heavily in wingsuit pioneer Jeb Corliss, developing the equipment he needed to pursue the extreme sport called wingsuiting (see his flying-squirrel suit). One of these companies, called Cookie, developed D30, a special foam that hardens on impact and is used in Corliss’s helmet, which needs to save him in 130 mph crashes. When we talked with Corliss, he said that these things were not only saving his life, but were also headed for a mass market.
Felix Baumgartner jumped into the stratosphere and freefell 24 miles to earth, setting the world record for the highest skydive. With help from Redbull and many developers, he created a pressure suit that would keep his blood from boiling as he fell at the speed of sound. “This mission was conducted as a flight test program, and hardly any of the technology we used was off-the-shelf,” he says. His spacesuit is now being borrowed by space agencies like NASA, and the materials are showing much wider applications. Baumgartner not only “proved a human can safely accelerate through the sound barrier without an aircraft”– he also developed a product that can protect others.
Government labs are a surprising but phenomenal place to find extreme explorers of another sort. As Dr. Robert Shaw, CTO of NASA Glenn Research Center, has observed, “The technologies NASA has developed for the extreme environment of space have led to multibillion-dollar companies and ROI to U.S. citizens of more than $10 for every $1 invested”–a rate venture capitalists aim for but rarely reach. Besides NASA, other research centers like Brookhaven National Laboratory and the famous CERN reactor not only accelerate particles to study the God particle in multibillion-dollar machines that industry could never afford–they also make their state-of-the-art facilities available to industry, so that anyone from Boeing to small medical-device companies can turn their cutting-edge discoveries and early-stage technology into commercial products.
By investing just a small amount in “explorers,” companies are achieving radical breakthroughs they never could have found or afforded on their own.
You may not be able to find any explorers to work with you. Well, then just create the conditions explorers face in your own business. WDI discovered 152 “invention methodologies” that companies use to create new products, and found that more than 90% of these intentionally impose constraints to drive invention. French eyeglass company Essilor embraced radical economic constraints to produce a $1 pair of eyeglasses for India. Steve Jobs gave Apple only eight months to design the iPod. And Philips used SIT (Systematic Inventive Thinking), an “invention methodology” that challenged engineers to work with the following constraint: “Imagine a DVD player that has no buttons or controls”–producing that sleek black box so familiar to us today. When companies impose intentional constraints using one of the 152 invention methodologies, it produces spectacular results. Necessity is truly the mother of invention.
By realizing that the future is yet to be created, stunning leaps and unimaginable breakthroughs are possible. But humans and cultures (especially corporate) tend to have the opposite viewpoint: that the future has been set in stone.
An explorer, on the other hand, envisions the endpoint, assumes it is possible, and then figures out how to get there. Companies should look at innovation the same way. Doing this means making a simple but profound shift from a “Can we do this?” to “How will we do this?” For Intel, this meant abandoning the ordinary question, “How can we make another slightly faster chip?” and posing the more startling challenge, “How can we develop a chip that has zero detectable lag time?”
One of the best examples of creating your own future may be Google’s “moonshot thinking.” I spoke with Astro Teller, director of Google X, who says: “Moonshot thinking is an exercise in imagination. We start by believing that something is possible [and] keep our eyes fixed on the goal even if it seems to be far off. . . . [We have] persistence–we harness the belief that the goal can be accomplished [and we then build] the technical skill and ingenuity to make it happen.” Google’s self-driving cars, just one of the many ideas that seemed impossible when Google announced them, have now logged more than 500,000 miles on the road.
The same strategy has worked well not only for Google X, but also for other less sexy companies, like Johnson Controls. In 2012, Johnson Controls set out to grow its $40 billion company by more than 50%–and made it even further than that.
Such efforts don’t show results immediately–they take enormous bravery by corporate leadership and then persistence over long periods of time. But we have found that the highest-performing companies find something to celebrate at the end of this journey, and history shows that their shareholders will celebrate as well.
If your company thinks that innovation is risky and that investing in explorers is a last-priority item, your company may need to reframe the discussion around risk and build a structure to support this new take on things.
While the common notion is that companies need “an appetite for risk” to invest in innovation, we found that the data shows otherwise. The highest-performing companies have turned this notion on its head by transforming their “innovation pipeline” into an “investment portfolio.” That is, they invest in a number of future options, diversifying the portfolio in such a way as to pull risk out of the equation. Procter & Gamble regards its $300 million-plus investment in future markets this way–and has at times been the most reliable top-line grower in the world.
In fact, the only two things risky about investing in innovation are treating it like a pipeline–or not doing it at all. For shareholders, the board, and other stakeholders to invest in an exploration practice, you’ll need to think about risk mitigation differently to support it.
Explorers unintentionally create the future because they want to achieve a singular goal–like reaching the North Pole. But high-growth corporations have found a way to make this exploration of the future an intentional and structured reliable practice.
By inventing and looking at possible futures, a company can make strategic decisions about which future they would like to create. Shell Oil’s long-term scenario planning is a striking example. Since the early 1970s, Shell has been developing stories about many possible futures. Another great example is the Implications Wheel that Joel Barker, a famous futurist, developed in the 1970s to examine implications of any change or decision. Many companies have used his tools and thinking processes to literally stay in business–including some major companies you know.
One of the highest return investments any company can make is in an exploration practice. While you may want a formula, the five approaches here are simply a menu. We found that each company did this in a different way, weaving two or three of these approaches around their existing company culture and innovation structures. The bold business leaders who make such an investment in exploration typically invest less and get more back–from higher success rates, faster speed to market, and higher rates of return.
If you don’t have products that help explorers go to outer space, the Arctic, and other unexplored frontiers, look to build an exploration practice by implementing the other strategies listed here. The technical innovations your team comes up with could be your next billion-dollar business–and your most enduring contribution to humanity.
These exploration approaches have been brought to you by the World Database of Innovation (WDI), a research initiative that has assembled the empirical evidence for how human organizations make innovation reliable and repeatable. By studying the innovation practices of more than 2,000 of the top-performing companies in history, WDI has discovered the 27 common structures, processes, cultural aspects, and belief systems that make up an innovation management structure.