At the time, it was impossible
Humanity’s most historic achievements all begin as bold futuristic 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, the doubters, who are forever arguing that the effort is a waste of time.
Take, for instance, 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 now couldn’t live without—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.
Space: Apollo Space Program
When Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module on July 20, 1969, becoming the first person ever to walk on the moon, millions of people around the world watched in wonder. The notion of someone actually setting foot on our distant satellite struck cynics as outrageous. Even today a hardcore group of skeptics maintains the endeavor was an elaborate government hoax.
The success of the Apollo 11 mission represents a singular moment in human history, but the achievement was by no means NASA’s alone. In fact, the Apollo space program, which over the course of six spaceflights enabled a total of 12 different astronauts to stand on the lunar surface, represents a vast and complex collaborative effort. Such a coordinated campaign—the biggest ever in peacetime—seemed impossible at the time. Ultimately, this $24 billion NASA-led project involved more than 400,000 staff from 20,000 different universities and firms, including MIT, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Rockwell Collins and Honeywell.
An undertaking of truly astronomical proportions, Apollo resulted in 18,000 diverse spin-off technologies, and changed forever how we think about space. Today, as missions such as New Horizons probe deeper and deeper into the far reaches of our solar system, it’s easy to forget that space exploration of any kind was once the stuff of science fiction.
Healthcare: Cochlear Implants
For centuries, deafness was a permanent condition. Once a person lost hearing, it was gone for good—restoring it required a miracle.
But scientists such as professor Graeme Clark believed they could do just 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.
Doctors completed the first multichannel cochlear implant operation in 1978. Since then, Clark’s and other scientists’ advances have refined and enhanced the implant’s performance, expanding the range of frequencies and improving speech perception in patients.
To date, 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.
When Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft in 1975, the goal they set was audacious: a computer on every desk, and in every home. “It was a bold idea,” Gates has since admitted, “and a lot of people thought we were out of our minds to imagine it was possible.” But the rapid expansion of the personal computer into every aspect of our daily lives is proof that the idea was not only bold but brilliant, too.
So how did it happen? The development of microprocessors and solid state memory, combined with key advances in software production, enabled manufacturers to build smaller, more affordable computers, in greater volumes. Crucial advances by companies such as Texas Instruments, Fairchild Semiconductor, Maxim Integrated and other Fortune 100 microchip makers helped computers to evolve from massive, complex mainframes into user-friendly desktop devices.
And they’ve been becoming more portable ever since. Today, nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone. We are shopping, banking, reading, photographing, listening, watching, organizing, sharing—all using a computer that fits in our pocket.
Transportation: Wright Brothers
Orville and Wilbur Wright weren’t the first people to dare to ask, What if humans could fly? But their pioneering aeronautical experiments were the first to make powered flight possible, laying the foundation for the aviation industry as we know it today.
The intrepid Wrights faced fierce skepticism. In 1906, the “New York Herald” went so far as to call them liars—flying is difficult, the newspaper claimed, while saying you have flown is easy. Undeterred, the brothers turned humankind’s collective dream off light into reality. Their crowning achievement was the invention of three-axis control, a method for steering fixed-wing aircraft that turned early airplanes from deathtraps into magnificent flying machines.
More than a century later, the three-axis method remains standard. With more than 8 million people around the word traveling by airplane every single day, modern life simply couldn’t exist without the Wright brothers’ breakthroughs.
Airplanes, moon landings, cochlear implants, personal computers: These incredible feats presented their creators with near-insurmountable challenges. But today, achieving the impossible can seem more impossible than ever. Innovators must bring manufacturing and software together in increasingly complex ways to impress customers who’ve come to expect the extraordinary every time.
The first personal computers offered a few hundred bytes of memory—a smart phone boasts 128 GB. 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. Meanwhile, 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.
Meanwhile, they must also allow employees to build products in much the same way they live—staying constantly connected via mobile devices, interacting and sharing instantly, accessing their apps and data whenever and wherever they want. But all this mobility and remote collaboration, this democratic approach to work, only adds to the near impossible nature of achieving timely delivery of complex products that satisfy stakeholders, regulators and—most importantly—customers.
In our software-driven economy, when six friends in a garage 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.
Our Next Impossible Products
Imagine the next impossible feats in…
Transportation: Driverless flying cars?
Space: Colonization of distant planets?
Medical Devices: Enhanced synthetic eyes?
Computing: Neuromorphic engineering?
Need for New Tools
With this dramatic increase in complexity, product development now demands a new approach. Innovators must acknowledge and embrace the need for new tools—tools that help simplify processes, meet every last regulation and blow competitors away. Technology can now easily take care of compliance, provide traceability and facilitate communication. In other words, it can free us and give us the time and space to be more imaginative and creative than ever.
Let’s Reach the Future Faster™.