The passing of Neil Armstrong this week brought a sense of wistful nostalgia – I was transported back to the early 1970s and being allowed to stay up until 9 O’Clock to watch the Apollo landings. Understanding more about what it took, and having seen the Lunar Module at the Smithsonian, I actually find Apollo more mind-boggling now than I did then!

The US won that particular space race, but taken as a whole the Russian programme is equally impressive, and because it was not as well funded, offers thought-provoking perspectives about innovation in straitened times.  There’s a great story that during the 1960s, NASA  spent millions of dollars to develop a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians simply handed their cosmonauts pencils. It was even mentioned during an episode of the West Wing.  A story that good deserves to be true, but unfortunately, a Scientific American article confirms that it’s a myth.

It still makes a good point however and does capture something of the Russian approach: a BBC “From our own correspondent” report showed that the Russian space programme has often had to rely on ingenuity rather than funds. Today’s Russian space technology is a robust mixture of sophisticated and pragmatically low-tech. For example the BBC correspondent reports:

“..in order to dock to the space station the [Soyuz] commander uses an optical periscope which sticks out of the side.
“Why not a camera,” I ask?
“Why make it complicated?” replies the colonel.”

This focus on results rather than the seductions of technology for its own sake is surely a key to the robustness of Soyuz. It’s an old design after all – the first version launched in 1966 – yet it can launch in a blizzard. By contrast, the Space Shuttle – undoubtedly a magnificent achievement, and probably the most complex machine ever built by humans – would be delayed by light gusts of wind.

There are no national monopolies on either technological sophistication or ingenious pragmatism. However, there does seem to be a widespread temptation to want to use the cleverest technology even though there is a simpler, cheaper, lower-risk, more robust way to get the same result.

What about the design of business processes and products? How many bloated product portfolios offer incomprehensible variants – across a range of tightly-packed price points – distinguished only by unnecessary extra features? It’s worth considering how much technological and methodological overkill there is in any business.

 

© 2012. Andrew Bass. All Rights Reserved.

 


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