Innovation: Selectively forgetting the past

Last week I was struck by a thought shared by Vijay Govindarajan, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, at the Front End of Innovation Conference in Boston.  In his talk on the “Business Model of Innovation” he shared a 3 stage model that included, 1) Managing the present; 2) Selectively forgetting the past and 3) Creating the future.   It was the “selectively forgetting the past” that resonated with me the most.  It reminded me of the quote by Alan Kay, “In some sense our ability to open the future will depend not on how well we learn anymore but on how well we are able to unlearn” and by John Maynard Keynes who stated that “The difficulty lies, not in new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” 


This was the sense I had last month when I walked from booth to booth at the incredible Innovation 2010 event at the NASA/Johnson Space Center.  The event had booths and presentations that were filled with engineers, scientists, information technology specialists, human resources and other disciplines sharing their innovations.  Mixed in amongst incredible technology would be a booth that broke from the traditional practices at the Center.   An idea that challenged the status quo and “selectively forgot” what was accepted as a standard practice for JSC.  Listening to these innovators caused me to pause and reflect on the “Why” of NASA. 


What is it that people associate with NASA beyond the landing of the moon?  Whenever a survey is done the impression that is heard over and over again is that NASA does that stuff that can’t be found anywhere else.  It is the place where we “selectively forget” or suspend what is possible.  Or as was a popular phrase years ago, “Where Science fiction is made science fact.” 


NASA is truest to its “why” when it can escape from old ideas. It is when we pursue the disruptive (game changing) technologies that the NASA Chief Technologist, Robert Braun is asking the agency to invest in that we fulfill the expectations from the world.  It is so easy to stick with the vast amount of knowledge that we have gathered over the past 50 years of Human Exploration, but sometimes we need to unlearn what we have discovered in order to open new paths to the stars.


Sharing the Vision,

Steven González, Deputy, Advanced Planning Office