The Value of Impossible Challenges
I love watching Top Gear, and there was a segment on the newest Mercedes SLS Supercar, the AMG Black. They pushed it hard around the track, the engine roaring like thunder. However, they then mentioned that this wasn’t even the most powerful new model of the SLS Mercedes is coming out with, and that to really hear what more power sounded like, you should turn up the volume on your TV now, the car came racing into view and then: silence. The most powerful Mercedes is electric.
It is a perfect analogy for innovation. Far from your average Nissan Leaf, the new Mercedes SLS Electric Drive has 740BHP and goes from 0-100kmph in 3.9s. This is a fully fledged supercar. Is it practical? Not in the slightest, even if its 155 mile range is twice that of the Leaf. But what it does show us is that some challenges which appear impossible, like beating the power of a petrol engine, can be achieved if given the time and resources.
Impossible Challenges drive future innovations
Sometimes, innovation only requires minor amendments to existing products, addressing specific flaws to make it more efficient, appealing, more powerful or cheaper. Sometimes innovations come from ideas and products mixing, and being used in new ways. Each of these can be achieved with tweaks to technologies and processes which already exist. However, sometimes there is a challenge that the current way of doing things simply cannot solve. At the time they are set, they are impossible challenges where the end solution is unknown. And the new solutions developed to address them often bring the most value in the future.
Let’s look at a couple of previous impossible challenges:
- Find a ship’s longitude on long voyages: A British government prize challenge to help its naval fleet know its location, eventually won by the development of the chronometer in the mid 18th Century
- Create a flying machine to transport people: The Wright brothers crashed 7 times while testing over 200 wing shapes before their first successful flight, something most people on earth said was impossible
- Transplant a human heart: The first time a human heart was removed and replaced finally happened in 1967
- Put a man on the moon: JFK, 05/25/1961: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win”. This was achieved on July 21, 1969
- Ansari X Prize for Private Space Flight: 26 teams took place, with the ultimate winner eventually being turned into a commercial venture as Virgin Galactic
- €1 billion model of a human brain: 2013, a consortium of research studies to better understand the brain and the mind. Nobody yet knows what will come out of this
What do most of the above have in common? They have an explicit challenge being set by someone in leadership, asking their best and brightest to find a way to solve it, even if the final solution is completely unclear. Different groups will address the challenge in different ways. But from these experiments, some solutions with promise will emerge, which can then be tested and refined.
Richard Branson: “Dream big by setting yourself seemingly impossible challenges. You will then have to catch up with them.”
I often talk to innovations directors and CXOs in leadership about the importance of setting these impossible challenges for their teams in long-term endeavors. Only this way can your products and services continually move forward past your current capability.
What is important to remember is that this process takes time and resources, and will result in numerous failures along the way. The end result is also likely to be very expensive, since new technology had to be developed to address its unique challenges. However, the profit is likely to come from these brand new innovative solutions then being taken into mass market products. A great example to bring this full circle is in automotive development, where breakthrough innovations in high-performance sectors like Formula 1 eventually trickle down to production cars. Just think of composite materials, computer design, enhanced brake materials and engine efficiency, which start at the high end and eventually get to the mainstream, where the profit is.
To end with a quote from Richard Branson: “Dream big by setting yourself seemingly impossible challenges. You will then have to catch up with them.”
What impossible challenges have you set your team, or have you been set? Let us know in the comments below.
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Nick Skillicorn is an Innovation consultant and Creativity coach in London, and author of 30 Days of Creativity Training. Find out what Improvides can do for your organisation.