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The Desk of Bryann Alexandros

Letters on Innovation, applied creativity, and business

Innovation is a Combination

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A Historical Example from the Original Skunk Works

Game-changing technology is difficult to "predict" or sense because of how innovation actually occurs. It's easy to sense new emerging tech, but searching for specific problems to solve is a tougher endeavor. Innovations are not necessarily single events, either. The puzzle pieces are often buried, sleeping, and awaiting for someone to make the right fit and connections from disparate sources and time periods.

Another counterintuitive fact of innovation is that sometimes the technology and theories need to ripen before the final product can be realized and engineered.

Let's unpack what I mean.

For example, Ben Rich who was Lockheed's second director of the legendary Skunk Works from 1975-1991, wrote in his memoir titled "Skunk Works" how they serendipitously discovered the breakthrough theory behind stealth technology.

During the cold war in the 1960s, the American military faced the challenge of increasingly advanced Soviet air defenses: it was evolving faster than the Americans were able to thwart it. The question was how could aircraft sneak past radar and successfully deliver a lethal payload – in this case, a nuclear bomb to the Soviet motherland?

A thirty-six-year-old Skunk Works mathematician Denys Overholser pored over a research paper titled "Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction," authored by Soviet scientist Pyotr Ufimtsev. It took the patience, subject expertise, and curiosity of a mathematician to navigate the byzantine paper:

As [Overholser] explained it, Ufimtsev had revisited a century-old set of formulas derived by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell and later refined by the German electromagnetic expert Arnold Johannes Sommerfeld. These calculations predicted the manner in which a given geometric configuration would reflect electromagnetic radiation. Ufimetsev had taken this early work a step further. 

Ufimtsev's equations provided a way to make the radio wave reflections off hard surfaces predictable. That was a key asset which would allow Overholser and others to create computer software that could design stealth aircraft.

According to Overholser, an airplane can be broken down into a series of flat triangles so that each triangle's radar signature and cross section can be calculated. The result would be a process to design aircraft composed of flat angular surfaces, aka "faceting." In Ben Rich's words, "similar to cutting a diamond into sharp-edged slices." This led to the development of the F-117 and the ability to have a dramatically reduced radar signature.

 
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This is a common pattern in how innovations really happen: 1. A combination of insights 2. a talented ecosystem of interdisciplinary teams and 3. a specific burning problem to solve. A circular trifecta of illumination, engineering, and thus transformation.

This also illustrates another common feature of innovation: The puzzle pieces from basic research and applied research may need time to mature. Certain technologies and theories must also advance and coalesce so that the conditions for innovation can be ripe. This is where teams need not just subject matter expertise, but also sensemaking skills and proactive awareness of emerging technology and research.

In the Skunk Works case, it took more than a century for conditions to ripen.Ufimtsev wasn't the lone genius. He built upon the work of James Clerk Maxwell – a physicist from the 19th century. Theoretical Physicist Arnold Johannes Sommerfeld would then refine those formulas in the later 19th century. Up until the 1960s, the formulas had only existed in their raw form: pure theoretical math.

But when supercomputers came into fruition, it provided a platform to put those formulas to use and make faceting possible. The program called Echo-1 had to be coded and invented from scratch (a collaboration between Denys Osterholder and his mentor Bill Schroeder).

An interdisciplinary U.S. team of scientists, aircraft designers, and mathematicians captured this opportunity – closing the gap between mathematical theory and aircraft design – to make the F-117 Nighthawk possible. When supercomputers evolved enough to handle more powerful 3D calculations, other companies seized similar opportunities, like Northrop Grumman and its B-2 Spirit.

Innovation is never a linear sequence nor an isolated idea. It's always a process and a combination of the right people, the right insights, and serendipitous events towards a burning challenge. 

Again, while the tech and theories need to mature, that doesn't mean teams are waiting idly. And that doesn't mean waiting nearly a century, either. Have great sensemaking skills. Be proactively aware, not reactive.

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Debrief Takeaways:

  • Innovation is never a linear sequence of events, but a combination of the right people, disparate events, an undying challenge that needs solving, and even other innovations
  • The path to innovate involves multidisciplinary teams from different domains who are both skilled and curious
  • Sometimes theories and supporting technologies need time to mature before conditions are ripe
  • The burning pieces to innovation challenges like basic and applied research lie buried and waiting to be synthesized further

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Bryann Alexandros