Great story about innovation (and Americans)

by Ian Thompson

I believe true innovation can only come by breaking the rules. If you just do what you are supposed to do, how can you possibly discover new ways of doing things or new ideas? It simply just doesn’t happen.

This week I read a great blog by Dave Trott (thanks to Dave Trott’s blog), which had a wonderful story of innovation, which definitely happened by breaking the rules. Turning a jet fighter engine round in mid-air just to find out what might happen could be construed as pretty crazy. Listen to what happened…

The Harrier was designed as a VTOL aircraft.
 Short for Vertical Take Off & Landing: a jump jet.

Everyone in the world had tried to make a VTOL aircraft.
 No one could make it work.
 The Russians built a plane with a massive engine underneath, to lift it off the ground, and then switch to a conventional engine for horizontal flight.
 But this meant two engines, and all the accompanying weight. 
It was ungainly. Inefficient and impractical.

But the Harrier was truly revolutionary. 
Because it took off vertically, then switched to horizontal flight, using a single jet engine.
 So it was lighter, more aerodynamic, more fuel-efficient.
 The first truly practical jump-jet. 
It did it by having a rotating nozzle on the single engine.
 To take off, the nozzle would be pointed down, so the thrust was upwards.
 To fly horizontally, the nozzle would be rotated backwards, so the thrust was forwards.

  • Naturally, the Americans were very interested in this new type of aircraft.
 So they sent an evaluation team to try it out. 
Two of their pilots each took a Harrier up on a test flight. 
The two Harriers took off vertically, as approved. 
They switched to horizontal flight, as approved.
 Side-by-side, they flew at 700 mph, as approved.
 After they’d done everything that was approved, one pilot called up the other.
 He said “What did they say would happen if we turned the nozzles backwards?”
 The second pilot said “They didn’t say. I don’t think they’ve tried it.”
 The first pilot said “Well let’s try it.”
 And he disappeared.
 The second pilot kept going at 700 mph while the first pilot stopped dead.
 Because of the rotating nozzles, the plane could stop without falling out of the sky. 
The American pilots were so thrilled they tried it again.
 This could revolutionise air combat.

    Eventually they landed and told the British what they’d discovered. 
It was totally untried, unapproved and unrecommended.
 But it worked.
 In fact the British then tried it for themselves. 
And it worked so well it became established procedure. 
It even acquired a formal name: VIFFing, for Vectoring In Forward Flight. At that time there wasn’t a name for what the Americans did.
 They just called it flying by the seat of their pants.
 Testing something to see what else it can do.
 To find out how far it could go.
 What works, what doesn’t work.

    Now we have a formal name for that, it’s called Beta.
 Another name for it might be Initiative.
 Americans aren’t as obedient as the rest of us.
 They don’t wait around and just do what they’re allowed to.
 They have a country formed from rebels and rejects. 
It’s in their DNA.
 To question authority.
 To think for themselves.
Not to just do what they’re allowed to do.
 They don’t accept everything unquestioningly. 
They keep testing, and prodding, and poking, and trying stuff, and fiddling, and experimenting. And a lot of times it doesn’t work. And sometimes it does.
 And then they find out something no one else knew before.
 And that’s what truly creative people do.
 They don’t wait for a brief and then simply answer the brief.
 They go beyond the brief.
 They get creative. 
They get playful.
 They get surprising.
 Because they come at a problem out of a question, not out of an answer.
 Asking what don’t we know yet?
 Not just asking, what are we allowed to do?

    As Orson Welles said “Don’t just give ‘em what they want. Give ‘em what they never dreamed was possible.”

    BAE Systems, who developed the Harrier, is a client of ours and they absolutely love this story. They love the fact that in our world of hyper health & safety and the need to follow process, there is always a way to think differently, to do things differently and to make great new things happen. Inspiring story.

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