From Stone Axes To Space Shuttles: The Human Capacity To Innovate

Guenter Pecht

The Russian-made BURAN space shuttle was one of the most ambitious projects in the history of Russian space flight. It accomplished something NASA has never been able to replicate: launching and landing like a plane. It did atmospheric flights throughout the 1980’s. Looking at the cockpit of the original OK-GLI shuttle today reveals something fascinating: Humans went to the edges of the earth’s atmosphere largely with the help of gauges, dials, and buttons – but nothing digital.

Fast-forward to the year 2018, and it seems unthinkable for any successful enterprise in any industry to run without a sophisticated digital cockpit.

In today’s hyper-accelerated digital world, businesses are challenged to rethink their processes, their competition, even their entire industries. Marketplaces have evolved to become more efficient, so process efficiency is not what keeps business leaders awake at night anymore. The next frontier is digital innovation.

As artificial intelligence begins to shape entirely new workplaces, organizations are keen to advance their levels of automation. But in so doing, they shouldn’t lose sight of what makes them truly innovative – the fact that we’re simply human. That unique, creative, irreverent, irrational spirit that compelled humans to hurl themselves into space – that’s what fuels innovation. Tapping that spirit, sustaining it and creating an organizational culture where it can thrive, will be a key competitive advantage in the age of automation. It’s what I learned in my own journey to adopt new work approaches for the 21st century.

To innovate, become an organizational architect

Leading a team of software innovators challenges me to think a lot about how to foster that human ability to innovate. That means creating an environment where people can make decisions with the future in mind.  Essentially, like an organizational architect – I’ve taken steps to build a team structure that fosters “humanness.“ Here are some of the ways we are experimenting with new work approaches. 

The power of 6 versus the power of 1

Hierarchies tend to stifle innovation. Ideas often die on their way up the hierarchy when decisions are made by people who are not domain experts and have vested interests in maintaining the status quo. To make sure that the best ideas don’t “die on the vine,” I established an Innovation Board. That’s 6 people – including myself – who each share a slice of decision-making power. The board is a cross-section of the entire team from software development, business development, go-to-market, operations, and product portfolio expertise. We meet regularly to discuss and vote on planned ideas for new technology solutions. Each Innovation Board member has one vote. All votes are equal. That means giving up the power of one (mine), so that collective wisdom wins.

Problem-finding as opposed to problem-solving

As humans, we outpace algorithms in our ability to understand problems within a context. The empathy to understand a customer need, to define a business problem, and to identify an opportunity is something we humans do uniquely well. We are masters at finding the problems that we want to solve. So, taking a close look at how we manage our problem-finding process is key to innovating. We use the Innovation Board to bring together people from different areas who see potential opportunities through different lenses. That means you don’t need to be a people manager to sit on the Board. Functional contributors and experts must be at the decision-making table in the workplace of the future. By iterating as a group, we are able to find new problems to solve and new business opportunities. 

Transparency can be a bitter pill to swallow

One of the hardest lessons we learned is that while innovation requires a transparent information-sharing culture, it also needs to make sure people feel safe, confident, and valued, even when their ideas are rejected. In the early days of our Innovation Board meetings, we lived the principle of 100% transparency. All members of the unit could take part in the meetings. Discussions and decisions were open and documents were accessible to all. This led to a greater sense of accountability, high quality of idea pitches, and high participation.

But it also had a downside. People whose ideas were not approved sometimes left the meeting feeling demotivated. In trying to be more transparent, we didn’t give enough attention to exactly that which makes us uniquely human – feelings. To counterbalance this, we did “retrospective sessions,” talking to team members to understand the disconnect better. We discovered that the Innovation Board had failed to provide a safety net for people and we needed to work on our feedback skills. We also needed to rethink the process of making and communicating decisions. Focusing on transparency without focusing on emotional safety can damage trust. As the organizational architect, I needed to take responsibility, apologize, and ensure we reacted to the feedback to win back trust.

Manager versus machine

I needed to adjust my leadership style and adopt more empowering and enabling approaches that included facilitating group collaboration, demonstrating concern for people, championing change, and offering critical perspectives in respectful and validating ways. That made me more alert to our competitive advantage as humans over the machine: our ability to understand and activate group dynamics. It’s that ability to cooperate, find problems to solve, adapt to changing situations, and think critically that inspired humans go from making stone axes to space shuttles, to automating almost everything.

For more on the human element in innovation, see Why The “U” In Human Will Matter Even More In An AI-Infused World.

Guenter Pecht

About Guenter Pecht

Guenter Pecht is Global Vice President of the Future of Work at SAP Innovative Business Solutions. Guenter and his team understand that yesterday’s rules don’t apply to the future of work. They help organizations leave 19th-century management practices behind, and replace them with technology solutions and management practices that make innovation real for the 21st century.