The Soft Underbelly of Innovation

The Soft Underbelly of InnovationIn the never-ending search for new ideas, one strategy for the innovation practitioner is to look for an area of particular weakness for a company or organization, leveraging the assumption that such an area will be ripe for transformational improvement.

Colloquially known as the “soft underbelly,” this could be any area that lacks the armor or defenses that typically protect an entity from outside attack.

Although in some ways it may strike the innovation practitioner as intuitive to seek to apply new thinking to the areas of greatest weakness, some companies or organizations may spend more time applying innovative solutions to situations where they possess attributes of strength, writing off their weaknesses as areas of little opportunity.  For instance, a product line that has a successful and lucrative revenue stream may warrant more attention than a product that has been in decline. Investments naturally will flow to the growth product, with less and less time spent thinking about the product with a shrinking revenue stream. This is entirely logical and predictable behavior on the part of an organization, though it may force that group to overlook a potential area of innovation opportunity.

An interesting historical anecdote from the author Stephen Budiansky provides an alternative view on the concept of focusing on strengths versus weaknesses.  In his book Blackett’s War, Budiansky relates the story of a group of British scientists who applied their knowledge and skills to help the Allies defeat the Axis in the 1940s. 

Wall Street Journal reviewer Marc Levinson heralds these wartime scientists and their lasting innovations by noting that “[c]oncepts such as probability and optimization, honed in studies analyzing the placement of anti-aircraft batteries and the flight patterns of planes on patrol at sea, made their way into the language of business.”  One of the heroes of the war effort was Stephen Blackett, a physicist who spent considerable time analyzing the war in the North Atlantic Ocean against German submarines.  Early in the war, the German U-boats were extracting a particularly heavy toll on Allied shipping.  The problem of finding and destroying a small, single submarine in a vast ocean seemed unsolvable, even though the U-boats spent most of their time on the surface.

Blackett applied a scientist’s logic to the problem by comparing the actual count of submarines sighted by observation planes to a mathematical model of how often, by sheer chance, the observation planes should have been able to spot the enemy vessels.  Blackett noticed that the number of sightings was far lower than it should have been given the number of planes operating over the seas and the number of enemy submarines in action in the area (which was known based on convoy reports or sightings and sinkings), and he then began to ask probing questions as to why this could be the case. Basic probability suggested that the planes were operating in the same area as the submarines, but the latter were not being spotted, which indicated that the submarines were likely detecting the planes and diving before they could be observed.

With this in mind, Blackett began a series of queries to determine the root cause of the issue. The key question turned out to be the color of the spotter aircraft.  These planes had been previously deployed for night bomber duty and thus were painted black.  Against a cloudy sky, the planes stood out and could be easily spotted by the U-boat commanders.  Blackett recommended that the underside of the planes be painted white, and shortly thereafter the rate of U-boat sightings doubled.

One lesson from Blackett’s innovation is the importance of looking at the “soft underbelly” to apply innovation not just in the literal sense (in which Blackett instructed the Royal Air Force to paint the undersides of their planes white) but also in his focus on a simple area of weakness to solve a problem rather than focusing solely on strengths.  For example, Blackett could have devoted his efforts to improving the optical sights of the spotter planes, an area where other scientists certainly could have driven innovation.  Likewise, he could have invested time in using the nascent technology of radar to detect the submarine masts on the surface (indeed this was done later in the war).  Blackett could have tried to solve the problem with more manpower by adding more flight crew members and windows to the planes.

However, Blackett decided that a simple solution could probably explain the lack of performance of his airplanes in spotting U-boats.  This simple solution proved to be one that could be implemented quickly and demonstrated results right away, as opposed to a more prolonged technical solution such as radar or advanced optics.  For the modern innovation practitioner, Blackett’s solution reminds us of the importance of looking at simple solutions in our areas of weakness.  Although it is difficult to justify investing time and money in a declining product, the proper innovation can quickly turn around that product’s performance or may point to insights that can improve even our areas of strength.

Sources: Marc Levinson, “How Scientists Sank the U-Boat,” Wall Street Journal (February 16, 2013). Stephen Budiansky, Blackett’s War (New York: Knopf, 2013).

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

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