Monday, 1 February 2010

Innovation lessons from Richard Noble

Richard Noble is defined by his multiple land speed records, and also by the attempts that didn’t go quite as well as expected. His first effort, for instance, back in 1977 in a car he built himself, finished upside down in a field after a death-defying, mid-air triple-roll. Noble, somewhat dispassionately, describes the order of events as: crash, pub, scrap yard. He says back then he hadn’t a clue about engineering, let alone any motor racing experience. He was obsessed by speed, and invigorated by the desire to break records, and that seemed enough.

It’s impressive, this insouciant ambition, which drives Noble to achieve things that to others seem inconceivable. Innovation has never seemed so natural. His latest record attempt is called BloodhoundSSC. The car, which Noble hopes will destroy his own land speed record, becoming the world’s first 1,000mph vehicle, is currently being built in Bristol. He’s set firmly on that record, but goal number two is more altruistic: to inspire a new generation of engineers.

Young scientists may well be enthused by Bloodhound’s potential. Provided the team can keep it on the road, the car will be able to travel the length of four football pitches every second. Although it would be too dangerous to try, should the driver be of the mind to swivel in his seat and fire a gun back towards the car’s origin, the car’s sheer velocity would render the bullet impotent. It would exit the chamber and fall straight to the ground.

Noble retired from the cockpit soon after breaking the record with Thrust2 in 1983. These days he looks after the business side of things. You might think such an experienced campaigner would rule his project teams with an iron fist. Actually, the reverse is true. “Every employee should have enough authority to fail the company,” he tells me. Why? Because to inject a workforce, any workforce, with passion, commitment and ingenuity, you need to forget about the concept of natural leadership.

Noble's project teams are almost completely flat. Noble is the sole director, looking after planning, finance and company culture. On everything else, his teams answer to no one. "I only want to know when things go wrong," he says. With no manager to go through, people are forced to collaborate. Teamwork prospers. In a flat organisation, says Noble, "you see people develop like you've never seen them develop before".

Here’s an interesting lesson: if you want innovation to thrive, take your hand off the tiller.

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