Innovation and Its Parallels to Exploration and Survival

When I began my career in technology a little over 10 years ago I was a bit tired of reading a certain type of book. Primarily, a book someone else said I had to read. Coming out of that period I no longer wanted to read about economic theories or business management. I was deeply interested and passionate about both, but the sheer volume of years of reading had put me off for a bit.

That’s when I found narrative non-fiction survival books. I read as many as I could find. What I did not realize until much later is that those books would frame the way I would approach my profession. Their messages while less obvious than classic technology or management books, are deeply relevant in designing and building technology products.

Find the right crew and build it

“I’m so sure the Indians crossed the Pacific on their rafts that I’m willing to build a raft of the same kind myself and cross the sea just to prove that it’s possible.” Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft – Thor Heyerdahl

In the 1940’s Thor Heyerdahl had a thesis for how the islands of the South Pacific were settled. Conventional wisdom was that the islands were settled gradually from Southeast Asia. Heyerdahl believed that they were settled at least partially from South America. A key problem with his argument was the general belief that the people of pre-Columbian South America could not have navigated the Pacific Ocean. How could he overcome that belief? Simple, find a crew, build a rudimentary raft using materials that were available at the time, and set sail across the Pacific. Heyerdahl and his crew successfully made the trip.   While there is still conflicting evidence on how the islands were settled, a key point in his thesis was proven possible.

There are many people who have great ideas; far fewer who are willing to push those ideas and create something. We are often constrained by our fears, our perceived limitations, and do not act because other smart people said it cannot be done. Innovators tend to see things differently. Behind many of the great companies, products, and advancements in recent history there is a story of someone taking a risk and deciding to find a crew and just build it.

Build for failure

“I am comforted by the sea yet am continually awed by her. Like an old friend she is always familiar, yet she is always changing and full of surprises.” Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea – Steve Callahan

Steve Callahan spent 76 days adrift in the Atlantic Ocean after his boat hit something, and sank. Callahan had only moments to get off of the boat and into his life raft. In his initial rush he was unable to get his emergency kit into the raft. However, Callahan designed air compartments into the boat. Those air compartments delayed the boat from completely sinking long enough for him to get back on the partially submerged boat. He was then able to retrieve his emergency kit along with a number of key items that would prove essential to his survival.

When designing products, software, process or technology its critical to design for failure. It’s easy to list out and design for success scenarios, but those scenarios won’t bring you down. Of course first, you have to find potential failure scenarios. There are many methods depending upon what you are creating. For example, running actual humans through your products during usability testing helps you to find failure points in your user interaction design. However, some scenarios you simply cannot predict. For those, take the small precautions that will buy you enough time to react, and then survive.


Be prepared to lead under ridiculous circumstances

“Our rations are just sufficient to keep us alive, but we all feel that we could eat twice as much as we get….” South: The Endurance Expedition – Sir Ernest Shackleton

In 1914 Sir Ernest Shackleton and crew began their Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Things went poorly early in the expedition as the Endurance became trapped in ice. After the sea ice crushed the Endurance they set out on a risky voyage to the uninhabited Elephant Island.   Shackleton and 5 others would then sail over 700 miles surviving hurricane force winds to whaling stations on South Georgia Island.  He would then return to rescue the rest of his crew on Elephant Island. For over 500 days Shackleton’s crew fought off starvation and extreme cold. Their survival is unbelievable. It is a credit to their strength and to the quality of Shackleton’s leadership.

While its unlikely you will face the perils of starvation or threat of sea ice crushing your vessel, if you are trying to bring innovative products to market you are going to face some absurd circumstances.  Your idea will face attacks on all sides from doubters, organizational bureaucracies, and lack of investment to get the infrastructure you need just to name a few. You will spend weeks where you and your teams work more than a 100 hours to get it done. You will have nights that you don’t sleep because you are working or are stressed about keeping the idea alive. The survival of your idea will depend on your ability to create the right team, and to lead them when things go sideways.


Do not quit

There are many themes that are shared across stories of exploration and survival, but the one theme that is found in all of them is the unwillingness to quit. When you read the stories of the great pioneers and innovators of technology like Jobs, Gates, Andreessen, Page, Brin their scenarios are not as dire or as extreme, but in all cases you find the same themes you see throughout stories of exploration and survival. They had a willingness to act on their ideas, and an unwillingness to quit when things went sideways.