Managing The (4H) Unknowns
Editor | On 03, May 2018
A few years ago, I had the dubious fortune of working on a research project looking at laminar-flow wings for aircraft. The basic idea – the brainchild of a group of long-time bored aerodynamicists – was that if we could prevent the airflow over the surface of a wing from becoming turbulent, we could achieve a substantial reduction in drag. The big idea centred around the creation of several million tiny holes in the surface of the wing, through which air would be sucked. Simple enough conceptually, but something of a challenge as far as the manufacture team was concerned. That said, they already knew how to make small holes, so their challenge was ‘merely’ to increase the quantity by an order of magnitude or two without increasing the cost. The fact that there was a multi-million dollar research grant to support the required R&D served to sweeten the pill somewhat for both the aerodynamicists and the manufacturers.
In a former life I used to be an aerodynamicist, so in many ways it should have been a dream project. Unfortunately, part of my time in the aerodynamics world was spent worrying about environmental factors like sand, rain, ice and other ‘foreign objects’. My first instinct when I saw the first prototype sheets of holey-wing material was, ‘won’t they get blocked?’
To which the answer from the in-house project team was basically, ‘who let this idiot into the room?’ I decided to keep quiet for a while. Until, as it happens, just after the first real world flight of a holey laminar flow wing. It was a beautiful summer day. The multi-million dollar project had now become a multi-tens-of-millions-dollar project. Building new aircraft is an expensive business. Instrumenting them to see how well your laminar flow drag saving hypothesis worked even more so. Especially when you want to see the results ‘live’ as the aircraft does its thing.
So everyone is basically looking at their drag reduction read-outs and the flight begins. There’s a collective ‘hooray’. The drag reduction looks impressive. The aerodynamicists prediction was pretty much spot on. Or at least it was for the first 15 minutes or so. Then it began to dip. And dip some more. Until finally, when the aircraft came in to land, the drag reduction effect had pretty much disappeared. The aerodynamicists weren’t happy.
They were even less happy when they went to have a look at their beautiful holey-wing. It looked like an insect graveyard. Half the beautiful holes now un-beautifully blocked by the splattered remains of dead things. Turns out that if you hit even something as small as a midge at 400mph it can cover a fairly large area. A bit like the old joke, ‘what’s the last thing that goes through a fly’s mind as it hits your windscreen?, answer: it’s arse’, we found ourselves looking at rather a large amount of midge arse.
It took about a month to strip the wing down and clear the insect detritus from the holes.
One of the aerodynamicists hypothesized that, perhaps we’d been sucking the air through the holes too hard. Another flight was duly scheduled to test the hypothesis. Same result. Another month of hard labour, flushing out several million tiny holes.
No-one had the will to try a third flight.
An awful lot of hard-fought R&D money got written off.
The point of the story?
A group of would-be innovators that fell into a very typical trap: not wanting to leave their comfort zone.
Here’s the picture we should have drawn:
Figure 1: ‘4H’ Map
Another 2×2 matrix. The innovator’s version of the famous ‘important-versus-urgent’ ‘Eisenhower Box’. Only this time plotting whether something has high or low impact against whether it is within or beyond our comfort zone. The four quadrants give us 4 ‘H’s as follows:
When we’re working within our comfort zone, on something that has low impact, ‘innovators’ tend to be at their Happiest: we get to work on stuff we love and are good at, and the consequences if things go wrong are pretty low. In the case of my laminar wing experience, this is the box the aerodynamicists were in: every aerodynamicist knows about the potential benefits of laminar flow, the ‘boundary layer suction’ technology has long been hypothesized, and the only real doubt is whether the drag reduction is 19% or 21%. For the aerodynamicists, this was a dream project: all up-side, very little downside…
…better yet, they got to off-load the difficult, high impact bit to the manufacture people. This is the top-right box in the map. The manufacture people were inside their comfort zone – they knew how to make tiny holes – but what they were now being asked to do was a big risk in terms of eventual project impact. Changing things by several orders of magnitude is the job of Hero’s.
Meanwhile, down in the bottom let hand corner of the map is the low-impact, out-of-comfort-zone domain. Stuff that has to be done, stuff that we know is do-able, just that we don’t know how to do it. This is the ‘Help’ zone. Which basically means we go and get help, and let someone else do the job. In the case of the laminar wing project, a good example of a job that had to be done that was in this quadrant was specifying the right pump to suck the air through the tiny holes. No-one in the team knew how to design pumps, but several knew how to find the right one in a catalogue.
That, finally, leaves the top-left hand box. The one marked ‘Hide’. These are the out-of-comfort-zone, high impact problems. Like, ‘how will the small holes cope with insects and other foreign objects?’ As far as the project team was concerned, this was very definitely outside their comfort zone, and all of their instincts were telling them to try and hide the problem. Especially so in this case, because, heaven forbid the project sponsors – the people forking out the many millions of dollars – might learn that there was something potentially able to jeopardise the success of the project.
Figure 2: ‘4H’ Map For The Laminar Wing Project
The big idea here is that what the laminar wing project team ‘should’ have done – what any serious innovation project team should do – is focus their time and effort on the ‘Hide’ problems.
In the specific instance of the insect problem, it would have cost very little indeed to test the insect-trapping properties of a sheet of holey-material. And the resulting answer would very likely have saved an awful lot of time and money spent allowing people to work, pointlessly as it turned out in this case, on the ‘easy’, within comfort-zone problems.
To a very large extent, managing innovation projects is about managing the unknowns. Teams need to be honest and open about all the stuff that isn’t known or understood. Then they need to find a way of prioritizing how they spend their very precious time and other resources. The best way we’ve found to do that – we do it on all of our own projects (i.e. we take our own medicine) – is to plot all the unknowns onto the 4H map. Something like this:
Figure 3: Typical ‘Managing The Unknowns’ ‘4H’ Map
On the right hand side of the picture is a list of all the unknowns for a typical project (just for completeness sake, we tend to classify the unknowns into five categories – ROI, Customer, Who? How? And What?), and on the left is what happens when we plot them against the Impact and Comfort Zone axes.
Managing the project then typically means working from the top-left hand corner until all the unknowns have become ‘known’. In other words, working on the high impact, difficult problems first. All the time, trying to find the cheapest, simplest means of acquiring a ‘good enough’ answer. No need to find a way to fire 400mph insects at a sheet of holey-flight-grade-aluminium. Simply drive along a highway with a sieve sellotaped to the front of the car would have been sufficient to show that this was a project-killer.
The only exception we’ve found to the ‘top-left’ rule, is that sometimes the first responsibility of the project manager is to the morale of the team. Which means creating the all-important ‘sense of progress’ we write about frequently in this ezine. Sometimes – just sometimes – ‘sense of progress’ means you allow people to work in the bottom-right hand corner of the 4H Map.
If in doubt, think like Napoleon. He knew the top-left, bottom-right trick. Or at least he did until Moscow… but that’s a different story.