Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Chilean Miner Rescue, Post-it Notes & Apollo 13 - Innovation and Failure Was Not An Option

Today, Wednesday, October 13th, 2010, marked a great day in humanity, innovation and was witness to the awesome power of the "failure is not an option" mindset.

Chile's 33 trapped miners were shuttled up a narrow escape shaft to freedom and joyous reunions in a meticulously planned rescue operation that ended the longest underground entrapment in human history and showed the true power of forced innovation.

One after another, the miners climbed into a missile-like steel capsule barely wider than a man's shoulders and took a 15-minute journey through 2,000 feet of rock to the surface. Dubbed the Phoenix I capsule, it was the result of a joint collaborative effort between the Chilean Navy and NASA that created a 924 pound rescue capsule with an interior height of 6 feet 4 inches and a 23 inch interior diameter.

The red, white and blue (painted in the colors of Chile's flag) empty capsule was lowered by a winch over 2000 feet into the earth. With each successive run the operators learned how to operate this new innovation marvel and the capsule-rescue operation got faster as it went along. All the men were safely above ground in 22 hours, 37 minutes, after it started.

This example of human achievement with real people's lives at stake, very much reminds me of the fateful Apollo 13 mission that intended to land on the moon in April, 1970. When the oxygen tank ruptured, severely damaging the Service Module's spacecraft's electrical system, the focal point of the mission quickly went from a successful lunar landing to simply the safe return of astronauts James Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise.

This forced the crew to shut down the Command Module to conserve its batteries and oxygen needed for the last hours of flight, and use the Lunar Module's resources as a "lifeboat" during the return trip to Earth. Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, and the critical need to jury-rig the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17, 1970 and the mission was termed a "successful failure".

Apollo 13 (15th Anniversary Edition) [Blu-ray]

Harnessing the power of forced innovation can produce incredible and useful results, such as the Chilean miner rescue capsule.. Innovation in history has produced a wide range of results, ranging from the truly absurd and silly, to deadly serious and critical to human life.

Even inventions that were not successful sometimes have produced the most remarkable outcomes. The same year as the Apollo 13 "successful failure", another failure was in the works.

Spencer Silver, a 3M chemist trying to formulate a stronger adhesive than the one that 3M currently had on the market, created an adhesive that ended up being super weak instead of super strong. This produced an adhesive that, in the lexicon of science, consisted of “inherently tacky elastomeric copolymer microspheres.” On the molecular level, this substance resembled the pebbled skin of a basketball. This characteristic sabotaged its bonding power; the tiny spaces between the microspheres made it impossible to get complete contact between the adhesive and another surface. In layman’s terms, it was glue that didn’t stick very well. Simply put, it was a failure.

No one knew what to do with this stuff, but Silver was smart and didn't discard it. Then four years later, on a fateful Sunday morning in the North Presbyterian Church in North St. Paul, inspiration struck. Another 3M scientist named Arthur Fry was singing in the church's choir. He used markers to keep his place in the hymnal, but they kept falling out of the book. Remembering Silver's adhesive, Fry used some to coat his markers. Entrepreneurial success! With the weak adhesive, the markers stayed in place, yet lifted off without damaging the pages. The modern day Post-it Notes was born.

But many people don't realize that if it hadn't been for Silver's persistent optimism in his failed product, combined with Fry's belief in this new found application and 3M's long-standing policy that permits employees to spend fifteen percent of their time working on projects of their own choosing, the Post-it Note may never have happened.

3M began distributing Post-it Notes nationwide in 1980 -- ten years after Silver developed the super weak adhesive. Today, over 6 billion Post-it Notes are sold in more than 150 countries around the world.

So let us rejoice in the successful Chilean miner rescue and safe return of Chile’s 33 miners, relish in the wonder of space exploration through the Apollo 13 near disaster, and thank Art Fry and Spencer Silver for the Post-it Note’s that we all use every day.

Had failure been an option in these historical lessons of forced, purposeful innovation, our lives would all be very different today. Now that’s Thinking Big!

Written by Herb Sih, Managing Partner of Think Big Partners and bizperc, Kansas City's newest entrepreneurial resource.

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