Here’s a quiz for you. Which of these two teams succeeded in making history and being extremely innovative in the process?
The A Team
• Budget: $2,000,000 in grant money.*
• Project Manager: A world renowned scientist and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute.
• Team members: The best scientists money could buy.
• Subject matter expertise: Years of scale model experience.
• Industry connections: Extremely well connected.
• Publicity behind the project: Unprecedented.
The B Team
• Budget: $24,000 of their own hard earned cash.*
• Project Manager: None.
• Team Members: Two guys without high school diplomas.
• Subject matter expertise: Printing and bicycles. Make that none.
• Industry connections: Um, who are these guys?
• Publicity behind the project: Like I said, who are these guys?
Well, it wouldn’t be worth writing about if it were The A Team. Of course, The B Team is the correct answer. The A Team was led by Dr. Samuel Langley and turned out to quite literally be a big flop. The B Team had no real leader. It was a team of two brothers named Orville and Wilbur. You might know them better as the Wright Brothers…you know…the guys who pioneered powered flight and changed the course of history. So how is it that these two guys from nowhere with a tiny budget beat a well-funded, government-backed team of top scientists to become the first team to achieve powered flight?
Mostly, they had a passion for what they were doing. They understood Langley’s team was bigger and “better” than they were. But the Wrights were passionately committed to the “idea” of powered flight. They knew that it wasn’t about having a huge team of scientists or tremendous budgets to win the game. Langley and his scientists were hired guns; if they failed, they failed. No big deal. They’d find another government grant to keep them going. If the Wrights failed, it was their life’s savings and their own personal reputations on the line. They were taking personal risks that could only be countered by a passion for what they were doing. The Wrights were driven by doing things that were different and challenging, not to meet the goals of a grant or a contract. It was this passion, this desire to do something challenging that allowed the Wrights to create the world’s first wind tunnel, develop innovative wing and propeller designs, and devise a control system that made powered flight possible.
Sometimes it’s very tempting to think that “if we had a bigger R&D budget, we’d be more innovative” or “if we had more resources we’d be able to really innovate” or “we just don’t have the right team and experience to be innovative“. The Wrights proved that you don’t need any of these things to be innovative. You need people who are passionate about what they’re doing. People who are willing to stick it all out there, take the risks and ignore the naysayers. And you don’t need a lot of them. Come on, if two guys who didn’t finish high school could change the world, a team of passionate people in your company or organization can certainly come up with innovative ideas that at least change your industry.
Want more proof from a more current success story? Listen to what Steve Wozniak says about his work at Apple: “All the best things I did at Apple came from (a) not having money, and (b) not having done it before, ever.” The truth is, you probably already have the right resources and people that you need. Just find a way to let them dream the “crazy” ideas, unleash their creative potential, and build innovative products that they are really passionate about.