Innovation Lessons from the Iron Dome

by Scott Bowden

As innovation practitioners, we must to approach the topic of innovation in warfare with great trepidation, as some would argue that it is difficult to consider resources invested in fighting wars as a positive development for humanity, given that warfare is almost always a tragic occurrence for combatants and non-combatants alike.

The traditional view of innovation in warfare focuses on the role that armed conflict plays in providing an extreme incentive for warring parties to think of new offensive and defensive technologies. In the latest iteration of conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system has received a great deal of attention as a key innovation due to its efficacy in defending Israeli cities from Hamas rocket attacks.

Much has been written in the media about the technology behind the Iron Dome and its evolution over the years, but instead of focusing on the intricacies of the missile defense system (which consists of a radar and interceptor missile that can be launched and kinetically strike incoming enemy missiles, knocking them off course), I would like to focus on two attributes of the Iron Dome system in operation that can yield additional insights for innovation practitioners.

The first insight concerns a general attribute of missile defense that dates from the first Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991 in which an interceptor system similar to Iron Dome, the Patriot missile system, was used in several cities the defend against SCUD tactical ballistic missiles launched from Iraq.  At the time, the technology was not as sophisticated and advanced as the current Iron Dome system, with hit rates on incoming missiles as low as 9 percent, compared to the current Iron Dome success rate of 90 percent.

What is of interest to the innovation practitioner is how the Patriot missile battery was deemed “successful” despite its relatively low interception rate.  The reason for this is the fact that the residents of the cities being protected by the Patriot batteries received significant psychological benefits from the defensive aspects of the weapon.  Rather than simply huddling in a bomb shelter awaiting the next, highly random, incoming missile strike, the resident of a city protected by the Patriot would hear or see the defending missile rising noisily and dramatically towards the sky in an attempt to intercept the incoming SCUD.  This mere act of defiance in the face of attack certainly lifted the spirits of the residents.  Being defenseless in the face of random attacks adds even more terror to the populace than having a sense of being able to respond to the incoming assault.

While the work we do as innovators in a business environment is in no way comparable to the life or death tragedy of warfare, the concept of attack/defense is worth exploring from an innovation standpoint.  In the age of disruptive innovation, companies often find themselves under attack in the marketplace. A company with a leading product or service, no matter how strong its sales or how positive its customer feedback, can suddenly find itself disrupted by a new competitor. In this scenario, the innovation practitioner should consider the psychological impact of the disruption on the employees of the formerly leading firm.

The innovation team could then assume a role similar to the Iron Dome in that it represents the defensive mechanism rising to resist the incoming attack.  Rather than sitting back and allowing itself to be disrupted, a company could fight back with innovation applied to its products and services. This fighting spirit can spread across the entire company and energize a workforce that previously was at its nadir of despair.  A company may want to place its innovation team in an even more prominent role than usual to show that it is responding to the marketplace assault.

In applying innovation to counter-attack a competitor, the innovation practitioner should consider another innovation insight from the Iron Dome system. The fundamental financials of the Iron Dome are not well-suited for a typical business model.  Each rocket launched by Hamas is estimated to cost a few thousand dollars to make, but each interceptor rocket costs Israel $50,000 to create, not to mention the time needed to manufacture the weapons. Trying to launch an interceptor against every incoming missile would prove to be an expensive endeavor and, presumably, Israel could even deplete its overall supply of interceptor missiles rather quickly.

To address this concern, an algorithm in the Iron Dome system makes a rapid triage-type decision when it detects a rocket launched by Hamas. The Iron Dome system analyzes the trajectory of the rocket and, if the rocket is likely to fall into an unpopulated area, the system does not waste an interceptor missile on that rocket. Only the rockets headed towards populated areas are targeted by the system, which increases its cost-effectiveness.

The same thought process can apply to the innovation team’s efforts to respond to competitive forays in the marketplace. A competitor may develop numerous new features for its products and services but innovation resources cannot be applied to respond to each and every attack. A company should assess each of these new attacks and determine which ones make the most sense to address and which ones, while still relevant in the marketplace, are not worth the investment of time and money to answer. At the same time, the lesson of the psychological impact of demonstrating a defensive capability suggests that it is important to make an attempt to repel attacks rather than standing idly by and allowing an opponent to seize market share.

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_War#Scud_and_Patriot_missiles

How Israel’s Iron Dome defence system has an almost 90% success rate amid deluge of Hamas rockets

Cirincione, Joseph (October 1992). “The Performance of the Patriot Missile in the War,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

image credit: quartertothree.com

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden is a Project Executive, Innovation Program Leader at IBM Global Services.

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