The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, considered to be the last major expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration in the early 20th century, came to a sudden end just two months after it began. The ship was icebound and what followed was a harrowing tale of survival and human ingenuity. For many businesses, 2020 started the same way with the perfect conditions to reach great new heights. There were no headwinds in sight. The coast was clear as far as the eyes could see. In our wildest imaginations, no one would have predicted such a scenario happening, and even less so the best environment to try new things and make ambitious and grandiose plans.
We knew it would be the hardest thing we had ever undertaken, for the Antarctic winter had set in, and we were about to cross one of the worst seas in the world.
— Frank Worsley, Captain of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition
Innovators understand that changing market dynamics, customer needs, and technological transformation requires them not only to improve and extend their lead in what shapes the essence of their business today, but also to journey into the unknown, imagine different possible futures, and discover a different world by seeing around the corners and looking for what lies ahead.
This is exactly how Ernest Shackleton and the crew felt when they set sail for their great new adventure aboard “The Endurance.” The plan was to set a new record by crossing over 1,800 miles in Antarctica. That ambition was cut short, but the shipmates’ story remains a great example of survival against all the odds.
Tough times and suddenly changing circumstances are great moments that can highlight major strengths or expose significant weaknesses in organizational systems and processes. The actions and reactions to manage through the crisis also make for interesting case studies for future business leaders. Surviving and thriving in the most challenging times is what makes for the memorable sailor stories that Ernest Shackleton and his shipmates recounted about how they were able to plot their escape.
Innovators can learn a lot from the discipline and organization practiced by those who regularly face treacherous waters and live to tell about it.
Here are some ‘sailor realities’ that can help describe how an organization needs to think about its efforts to innovate in stable and turbulent times:
Ship-shape and Bristol Fashion
Being in first-class order is a way of life for sailors, who must ensure their ship and equipment are in good working condition. Setting out for the next adventure without making sure they can operate at their best is just not an option with the unknown risks that await sailors at sea. Yet, many organizations don’t have a system that acts as their engine for change when it comes to innovation. As important as financial systems are to companies, they should apply the same thinking for innovation systems — developing and operationalizing creative ideas in a single system of record. It’s those concrete and valued ideas that come to life and keep a company ready to weather the storm.
Batten Down the Hatches
As bad weather sets in, waves pick up, and a disturbance appears in the distance, the sailor prepares for the trouble that lies ahead. This is simply the function of innovators, who help businesses sustain themselves as the world inevitably changes around them. Having a clear process and structure to account for innovation allows for a clear view of the innovation pipeline and portfolio. Staying customer-obsessed and looking for a range of innovations based on customer insights means you can always stay several steps ahead of the competition.
Amid these profound and overwhelming forces, we are the absolute embodiment of helpless futility.
— Frank Hurley, Photographer of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition
Dead in the Water
The ship will stand still and dead in the water when there is no wind to propel its sails. In the Age of Innovation, even the most exceptional innovators can move quickly from first to last place. Winners can find themselves disrupted if they don’t have a second act. “What’s next?” thinking is not just a mantra — it’s also a business imperative that helps you to use the positive momentum of one successful solution to identify the next one.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Sailors sometimes have to make tough choices and face dilemmas at sea. The alternatives may come down to choosing between the bad, the ugly, and the unknown. As danger lurks, making tough decisions is part and parcel of successful businesses. Many organizations struggle to understand if they are making the right choices in their innovation investments. The ability to compare different alternatives by factoring in the proper business criteria and involving subject matter experts is hard work. Winning teams leverage the right platforms that help facilitate such evaluations and decision making.
Cut and Run
Some situations demand quick actions that require you to cut the rope and leave your anchor behind. Agile thinking means you know how to plan out a meaningful experiment. It also means you know most bets are unlikely to pay off. The higher the reward, the more attempts may be required to find the right answer. Cutting down allows you to scope the challenges you need to solve and determine if your work is helping you head in the right direction. That’s where the magic of agile experimentation comes in. Keep learning from each attempt, keep moving forward when it makes sense, and keep turning back and trying others paths when needed to avoid going down the same rabbit hole.
At a Loose End
“Tying up loose ends” is critical before you set sail. In innovation, you need to make sure you have the right business model to build your plan around. A business model canvas is a great practice to build into your innovation process to ensure you factor in all key considerations that communicate your value proposition. Work collaboratively to challenge each area so you can end up with a well thought out business proposition that fully supports your concept’s development.
Knowing the Ropes
Good sailors know every square inch of their ship. They remember where everything is and understand how everything works, including all environmental factors. Likewise, innovations that find real success in the marketplace have been fully vetted with a clear understanding of what changes and support are required to scale and commercialize them successfully.
Whistle for the Wind
Sailor superstition hopes to summon the wind by merely whistling when the ship is dead in the water, but creating positive change takes a lot more than fables and fairy tales. The innovator’s whistle, by contrast, leans on artificial intelligence to sift through a myriad of data sources and mountains of information. These factors help identify those valuable clues that can serve as a source of inspiration and help develop hunches, potentially uncovering meaningful breakthrough opportunities the organization should focus on.
After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope beat high and times when the outlook was black indeed, we have been compelled to abandon the ship, which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted.
— Ernest Shackleton, Leader of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition
From 1914 to 1916, the crew members of Endurance were able to strategically hunker down, transform their ship into a winter habitat, and use everything at their disposal until they were able to envisage their escape eventually. Two years later, everyone returned home safely by using lifeboats. They all survived. This pandemic may very well last just as long. It is difficult, but it is also an amazing opportunity. It’s more important than ever to think about embracing change. Innovators are continually setting out for their big adventure. They are fully aware that the journey to the most rewarding ideas is never an easy one, and that it takes great care and attention to achieve their objectives. Good things come to those who play the long game and choose the right actions to stay ahead.