Antarctic Innovation

If you didn’t have the opportunity to watch the IMAX movie about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s now-legendary 1914-1916 British expedition to Antarctica, you missed out on a big screen adventure. Yet, as can be the case, cinema leaves out key details in non-fiction stories. As it happened, Shackleton had a lot of difficulty recruiting a crew to accompany him in exploration. A LinkedIn acquaintance of mine, Gijs van Wulfen, found that an advertisement was run in a London paper in 1913. The ad could, as Gijs points out, just as easily be an appeal for those looking to become innovators:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.

van Wulfen points out that there are numerous similarities between expeditions and innovation:

  • A promised land. Most people searched for the adventure only when it was really necessary and when they had nothing to lose. This is so familiar in our organisations today. Real urgency is only experienced when ‘old solutions’ do not work anymore and markets are saturated. And it is felt by people expecting big promising treasures.
  • The challenge of being 1st. Explorers strive being first. Amundsen discovering the North-West passage. Livingstone searching for the source of the Nile. Hillary climbing Mount Everest. Entrepreneurs have the same ambition: developing ‘new-to-the-world’ innovations to outsmart competition.
  • A group effort. Explorers almost never went alone. Hillary could not have conquered Everest if he wasn’t saved first by Tenzing Norgay from falling in a crevasse. You can invent a new product, service or business model alone. But within organizations you cannot innovate alone. You need people from every discipline to develop it, produce it, market it, sell it, bill it and service it.
  • A long journey. Discovery voyages lasted many years, due to unexpected setbacks such as an unknown illness, a tropical storm or mutiny by the crew. The average time for the development process of a new product, which takes 18 months from idea to introduction, follows similar patterns.
  • High risk of no return. Many ships perished along the way. On one of the voyages of Magelhaes, four of the five ships did not return. One ship survived and made the expedition worthwhile. It’s similar in innovation. From the seven new developed product ideas only one product enters the market successfully. The remaining six perish along the way.
  • Serendipity leads to even bigger rewards. Sometimes explorers thought they landed on a small island, which proved to be an enormous continent afterwards. As the Vikings did who discovered North America long before Columbus.  Compare this with the development of SMS-services. It was originally developed for the business market, but it did not take off. After young people caught on to the idea of SMS as a modern cheap way to contact each other, it became a worldwide market with more than three billion users.

Entrepreneurship, like innovation, is an expedition for the hearty. Those who aspire to start enterprises must be willing to take risks, have a clear vision of a better solution, work hard for a long time, recognize opportunity, and work through teams. 


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