First published in BW Businessworld here.
Geoffrey Nathaniel Pyke was described as, “not a scientist, but a man of a vivid and uncontrollable imagination”. He was a one-man think tank working in Lord Mountbatten’s Combined Operations during World War II.
In 1940 he came up with the idea for a snow-borne guerilla force designed to operate behind enemy lines. His idea for a snow mobile, light enough to be carried and dropped by parachute from an airplane, durable and powerful enough to be able to climb through all types of snow, resulted in the M29 Studebaker Weasel and development of the U.S. Special Forces.
At around the same time, Pyke told Lord Mountbatten about another idea; that of oil pipelines running under the ocean. This spawned PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean), a set of pipelines under the English Channel that was used to pump oil to the Allied forces in France.
Pyke generated hundreds of ideas, many of them impractical or laughable. During a Turkish operation his suggestions included using a team of dogs to howl like wolves causing Axis guards to flee in fear or distracting German soldiers by supplying copious amounts of alcohol using dogs carrying small barrels of brandy around their necks or deploying women to distract enemy soldiers. Or to prevent German soldiers from tampering with motorized sledges dropped from airplanes, each sledge would carry a warning in German advising finders to keep clear of the “secret Gestapo death ray” or simply state “Officers’ Latrine for Colonels only” on the premise that all German soldiers obeyed orders.
But Pyke was famous for Project Habakkuk – a giant aircraft carrier made from refrigerated and reinforced ice. A ship made with a frozen mixture of ice and wood pulp, later called ‘Pykrete’, could be virtually unsinkable. A torpedo would only cause minor damage and repairs could be quickly repaired. Pipes circulating cool air could keep the hull permanently frozen. In fact, an experimental ship based on Pyke’s idea was built in Canada.
Despite only a few of Pyke’s ideas having some merit and most ideas being amazingly impractical, Geoffrey Pyke was kept around for a time simply because the Chief of Combined Operations, Louis Mountbatten, felt that Pyke’s steady stream of outlandish ideas was good for the other members of his staff to hear, to try to get them to think a bit more out of the box.
This story holds valuable lessons for us when creativity and innovation are now part of top management’s agenda. Driving creativity requires encouraging ideas from across the ranks, leveraging diversity, providing the ‘right’ setting, embracing the certainty of failure and providing pathways through internal bureaucracy. Professor Jim March at Stanford proposed three necessary conditions for innovation in an organization: slack, increasing hubris and optimism. Slack refers to having sufficient time and resources for exploration, increasing hubris refers to inspiring managers to take risks and optimism takes hold when a vision of something truly different is made to seem more promising than the status quo.
But we also need to find “Pyke” in our teams. Geoffrey Pyke thought adventurously and was unafraid to look foolish. He scanned history for inspiration and to make connections, he challenged accepted ideas and found that by making small adjustments to the formulation of a problem he could unlock a torrent of fresh ideas. Pyke’s view was that it is our duty mentally to “throw up a hundred million pollen on the chance that one may do it duty”.
So do you have a Pyke in your team?