Putting a man on the moon. Breaking the sound barrier. Building an artificial heart. At the time, it was impossible. Humanity’s greatest achievements all begin as bold visions. Creating something the world has never seen requires inspiration and imagination. But dreaming up impossible ideas is one thing—making them possible is another. Without a strong dose of determination, those innovative blueprints and sketches might never get past the naysayers and the doubters arguing that the effort is a waste of time.
For instance, take Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of an information management system based on “distributed hypertext.” In 1989, when he put in writing what would become the World Wide Web, his groundbreaking idea was so farfetched that most skeptics didn’t even waste their time commenting on it. And where would we be if Louis Pasteur had given in to those who said diseases weren’t spread by germs but instead appeared out of thin air—the so-called “spontaneous generation” theory?
A whole host of era-defining inventions—products that we couldn’t live without now—came about because their creators stopped at nothing in their quests to prove the naysayers wrong. Across industries such as transportation, space exploration, health care and computing, these visionaries triumphed against adversity, changed the world and raised the bar for future generations. They made the impossible possible.
For centuries, deafness was a permanent condition. Once a person lost hearing, it was gone for good. But scientists such as professor Graeme Clark worked tirelessly to change that. Inspired by his own father’s struggle with deafness, Clark—who went on to found Cochlear Limited—developed a theory that bypassing a damaged ear and directly stimulating the auditory nerve with electric signals could make certain frequencies audible. Since then, more than 300,000 people have benefited from implants such as those made by Cochlear and Advanced Bionics—proof that deafness need no longer be permanent.
In 2012, SpaceX made history when its Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial vehicle to successfully attach to the International Space Station — a feat previously achieved by only four governments. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft are carrying cargo, and one day will carry astronauts.
These incredible feats presented their creators with near-insurmountable challenges. Today, achieving the impossible can seem more impossible than ever. Innovators must bring manufacturing and software together in increasingly complex ways. The first personal computers offered a few hundred bytes of memory—a smartphone boasts 128GB. The Apollo 11 mission required 145,000 lines of code—compare that with the 86,000,000 lines used to build Mac OS X and you get a sense of how much more complicated products and projects have become. Safety guidelines and governmental regulations have never been stricter, and competition grows more and more fierce.
Companies are striving to meet these challenges. The embrace of Agile represents a decisive move away from the “command and control” models of the past—models that stifled innovation. But organizational complexities have grown, bringing a vastly more complicated workplace. With or without structured workflows, teams must coordinate and align all that creativity to a shared purpose to keep big projects on track.
In our software-driven economy, when a nimble startup can disrupt an entire industry with a must-have app, companies also face another daunting challenge. They must produce products that are extraordinary. Good enough is no longer good enough. Companies must delight their customers by exceeding their expectations and giving them something they didn’t know they wanted, but couldn’t possibly live without.
This year our customers led space exploration, medical breakthroughs, advances in autonomous driving and robotics. Their stories have amazed us and inspired our own work to better help them. We are consistently reminded of the challenges they face in developing the technology that will define a generation, and the fortitude they demonstrate in overcoming them. And they keep us asking – what impossible products will our customers build next?