On sacrificing limbs…

I just finished reading Old Man’s War by John Scalsi. Overall, it was pretty entertaining. One part of it reminded me of a conversation about innovation from earlier in the week.

The book is set well into the future, and there are three types of humans around. The first is the normal everyday variety, like you and me. Many of these are setting off into space to colonise newly found planets. However, there are plenty of other species that also want these planets, so these people are protected by the Colonial Defense Force. The CDF consists of the other two types of humans. One group people that are all 75 years old when they sign up for the army. Their memories are implanted into a cloned version of themselves, which are heavily genetically modified. So they have all of the knowledge and wisdom that you accumulate over 75 years of living, but with superhuman powers. The last group of people are the CDF’s Special Forces – even more heavily modified. They are stronger than the normal CDF recruits, and have other additional capabilities. They don’t have any previous life experiences or knowledge embedded in these bodies – so from their first moment of consciousness, they are fully adult superpowered killing machines.

John Perry, the protagonist of the book is a normal CDF volunteer. He talks about his experiences in his new body, and, as you would expect, he finds himself in a lot of combat situations. At one point, he presides over a situation where five people from the Special Forces have to engage in ritual one on one combat with members of an alien race. Overall, the Special Forces do pretty well in this. One of the things that Perry notes is that the Special Forces fight in a way that is completely different from the way that normal CDF soldiers fight – they are much more willing to sacrifice arms and legs if they need to in order to get into a position to win the fight. All of the CDF forces have remarkable powers of recuperation, but the Special Forces members take these for granted – and actually take them into account when formulating strategy. The CDF soldiers that have already lived a lifetime in a fragile, normal human body are much less able to take full advantage of their ability to get by without a limb or two for a bit – they’re just too used to protecting themselves.

So what does this have to do with innovation? I think this is actually a pretty good analogy for a situation that a lot of firms find themselves in now. As sceptical as I tend to be of ‘everything is different now’ type arguments, in a lot of ways…. everything is different now in business. Even if you don’t buy all of Tom Friedman’s ‘The World is Flat’ concept, the internet and related digital technologies are unquestionably changing the way that business is done. This has led to rapid and often unsettling change for people in a lot of industries that seemed awfully stable and boring 10 or 15 years ago. In order to cope with this situation, one key strategy is to innovate – and in particular, to try to find the thing that will make your industry obsolete. I had lunch with one of the people that took our Innovation Leadership class two years ago and we talked about this. He said ‘sometimes you have to cut off your own arm, because if you don’t, someone else will come along who’s trying to chop off your head.’

And that’s pretty much exactly what happens in Old Man’s War. The soldiers that are willing to make sacrifices that are inconceivable to their elders succeed. Maybe that’s what firms in industries that seem stable right now need to be doing too – to use their wisdom and experience to learn how to fight the same way that the youngsters are. It might be the only way to keep their heads…

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.