Does It Have To Be Rocket Science?

I spent a good portion of my youth imagining galactic travel, robots on other planets, and space habitats. (And yes, I watched every episode of Star Trek — a remarkable source of new inventions.)  So, when Marty Waszak, Strategic Relations Officer at NASA Langley Research Center, a kindred spirit and fellow crusader of innovation, invited me to speak to a group of senior scientists and engineers about the creative process, I was over the moon!

While thrilled with the invitation, I wondered what a lecture from me could possibly contribute to innovation at NASA — the pioneering leader in research, development and design… and an organization filled with rocket scientists.

Then, it occurred to me that PwC and NASA might have a few challenges and opportunities in common.  We are both heavily regulated organizations, obligated to deliver projects on budget and on time, staffed with highly technical people, and expected to continuously think creatively to provide clients with competitive advantage. This realization helped me focus on lessons I’ve learned as the Innovation Leader at PwC and what I could share with NASA.

Lesson #1: Innovation can come from anyone, anywhere
Innovation is the introduction of anything new or different.  Anything new or different implies innovation can happen anywhere, not just in labs or R&D centers, and by anyone, not only scientists and researchers. At PwC, we have simplified our innovation mission into one question which is relevant to every member of our organization: “What can I do differently today to deliver more value to my client?”

Lesson # 2: People want to be engaged and empowered
At a time when user-generated content rules the web, everyone wants to be empowered to develop strategies previously limited to boardrooms in the executive suite. Employees want to be part of something meaningful and big, and they often surprise if given the opportunity.  NASA and PwC, hire some of the brightest people. Let’s give them a virtual seat in the boardroom and empower them to cultivate their own vision and contribute to the success of the organization.

Lesson #3: Collaboration helps!
I doubt many would challenge my claim that collaboration helps evolve ideas into more valuable assets.  How do you foster an environment where an idea is only the beginning… and collaboration from colleagues is an essential next step?  Online tools that enable brainstorming can be an effective way to transparently showcase the process and benefits of collaboration. At the core however, is a cultural issue that needs fostering from all levels.

Lesson #4: Leadership must be part of the innovation eco-system
I don’t recall ever hearing a CEO say we don’t need innovation, but few truly understand the commitment involved in supporting a culture of creativity. Our social contract with our people at PwC states that if you submit an idea into our idea management site, iPlace, a member of the leadership team will read it, evaluate for possible implementation, and provide comments directly on the site. This direct engagement provides genuine support and the transparency creates a safe environment for innovative thinking.

Lesson #5: Recognize and reward innovation
Most organizations know how to recognize and reward accomplishments, but how do you recognize someone with an idea before it has been fully developed or implemented? If your organization has 3,000 ideas in its pipeline and resources only allow the implementation of 300, where do you the draw the line?  Recognition of all innovators creates trust, builds confidence, and helps accelerate the innovation mindset. Recognition is not a zero sum game. There’s an endless supply. Be generous!

These simple lessons resonated with the audience. Hopefully I influenced them to think slightly differently about each person’s role in the innovation life-cycle. I personally walked away with much more. Not only did I have an incredible day flying the lunar simulator, (successfully landing the first attempt and crashing the second!), sitting in the cockpit of a simulated 757 aircraft, and visiting a space robot who can build a station on the moon, I also met some of the smartest people on the planet, and was inspired by their long-standing commitment to improving the lives of others.

What I really learned at NASA has little to do with space exploration and everything to do with everyday life.  I was reminded that we all face similar issues — and innovation is really a people issue.  Maybe not everyone dreams of space travel, but everyone should be allowed to dream and have the opportunity to make a difference.

This entry was posted in Culture, Innovation, Organization, Strategy. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Does It Have To Be Rocket Science?

  1. I only wish more children were exposed to these lessons at an early age … it seems that innovation and collaboration are recognized, but not fostered in the young through education.

    Great post!

  2. maybe you have thought of this before…but i feel like some kind of organizational behavior book writing is in your future!

  3. CrystalSpins says:

    Great lessons — for any field of study or practice! I’ve always been more of an innovator than an inventor myself. Maybe that’s why I always wanted to invent something!


  4. Flying the lunar simulator!! How lucky were you! I would LOVE to do something like that. I did visit NASA whilst on holiday in Orlando- one of the best experiences- ever!!

  5. AR says:

    I am a huge fan and follower of PwC…Especially love the concept of Pantomime in London, in which its employees can take part to regenerate themselves and show their creative talent…(will certainly take part if I ever work with the firm!!). So getting to know more about the internal culture was fun.

    These were very nice ideas ….visiting NASA must be thrilling and speaking to a bunch of rocket scientist certainly needs a lot of thinking and innovation in telself.

    I would love to hear/read more about what new ideas/inspirations have occured to you during your visit to NASA that can be implemented at PwC.

    Apart from the topic, I loved the way the blog is written…while reading it I could feel feel the flow of sequences -the excitement of visiting NASA, the apprenhension of what to speak!, the logical brainstorming and drawing out of similarities,portraying the ideas and finally enjoying the day and being inspired by the people who make a difference…..

  6. You are absolutely right – it does not have to be Rocket Science, your principals are perfect for any company in any occupational field to adopt. Is the speech on Youtube, I would love to see you speak.



  7. ournote2self says:

    You are so right. Great blog…keep them coming!

  8. FinallyFast says:

    Innovation I feel is so easily stopped or held up by systems and people who don’t like change. Do you have any suggestions on how create and protect innovation so that change can happen?

  9. Raji says:

    Forget the lessons.. visiting NASA.. Flying Lunar Stimulator.. grt one..
    but very well spoken. change is indeed the only inevitable process, hence master it..

  10. anonnickus says:

    A good example of common sense being introduced as the larger part of innovation never ceases to amaze. Well done.

  11. johnlmalone says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. I e3njoy being innovative. It is always a challenge coming up with something new in literature. Even in my blogs I try to be innovative without ‘losing the common touch’

  12. danyo26 says:

    This is a very inspiring post – as a teacher and counselor, I try hard every day to come up with new ways of inspiring my students. I like how you described PwC’s innovation mission: “What can I do differently today to deliver more value to my clients?” And one of the best parts about being a teacher is being surprised at how much innovation comes from the children – it truly comes anywhere at any age! Thanks for sharing!

  13. Lakia Gordon says:

    Enjoyed reading the post. Lesson #1 and 2– you’re right on!

  14. paulgswanson says:

    That was rather excellent I glad Im finally not the only with above average sense [B/c Common is just that, common IE useless]

  15. beth beck says:

    You should come to NASA HQ and give the same talk. Love #4 and #5. They tend to be the easiest in concept, sometimes the hardest in implementation — depending on the organizational culture. 🙂

  16. preeti says:

    Brilliant chain of thoughts stringed together,liked it. Agree totally genuine support and transparency should certainly help implement innovation.

  17. Grumpa Joe says:

    I spent my career as an engineer. Everyday I had to think about how to make things work, but the human mind works to revert thinking to those things that cause a device to not work. It takes rigorous mental exercise to stay on the positive side of things. It was my experience that when I could “see”(visualize) a problem solved, the solution came easily. Your steps are simple and effective if followed with a religious zeal.

  18. batikmania says:

    I watched a TV program in Japan, that showed some innovations made by ordinary people, house wifes etc. Many daily problems solved in the show. Nothing “grand” as rocket science. It’s “just” solution on how to peel off the skin of onion easily, how to optimize the warmth of your electric carpet, how to carry your used newspaper, etc etc. Just anything came up in our daily life. The presenters appreciated all contributors, and it’s just great. No need to be rocket science to contribute positively in our society. Thanks for inspiring with your blog posting, and congrats for being exposed in freshly pressed.

  19. RJ Ellsworth says:

    I first clicked on this in the featured blogs because I’m really interested in space and science and was pleasantly surprised to find that it had lessons that could be learned rather than just direct factual information.

    I’m reading this from a musician’s viewpoint and I can see how this works even in a band situation (though on a smaller scale than what is implied). Getting creative folks together to contribute to an ultimate whole (songs, themes, and art) is better than having just the one mind create things alone from the bottom up because the different ideas can be implemented to create a better finished product. I am actually going to share this with my band mates and see if they like it as much as I did.

    Good work sharing ideas that can be utilized in many, if not all, forms of creativity a creative endeavors.

  20. newbon99 says:

    What a great comparison between two totally different industries, having read and watched a lot on business management, strategy, innovation and the likes, it does not surprise me that there are common traits between organisations. Well written.
    You should watch a couple of Sir Ken Robinson’s videos, great ideas on business, innovation, education etc.

  21. Matt says:

    Great post. No truer words have been spoken.

  22. countoncross says:

    Great information…love your site

  23. Pingback: Innovation battle – Does It Have To Be Rocket Science? « Mbconsulting's Blog

  24. Have the US and Europe decided that innovation means high tech and high tech only while emerging countries are innovating in smokestack industries – and being extremely successful at that?

  25. Pingback: Does It Have To Be Rocket Science? | PwC Innovation Blog | Accounting and Small Business /Beverly Shares

  26. Pingback: Innovation | PwC Innovation Blog | Accounting and Small Business /Beverly Shares

  27. Brilliant chain of thoughts stringed together,liked it. Agree totally genuine support and transparency should certainly help implement innovation.

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