There are the facts about an event. And then there are the stories we tell about an event. Sometimes the facts and the stories do not match entirely, but there are valuable lessons to be learned from both the facts and the stories if we are willing to pay attention.
The facts I have in mind relate to the building of some pyramids for Pharaoh Sneferu. It was during his reign that Egyptian engineers made the giant leap from a stepped pyramid to a smooth-sided pyramid. Thanks to their work, Sneferu’s son, Pharaoh Khufu was able to build several smooth-sided pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The facts are interesting enough, but the story I was told in Egypt about Sneferu’s building effort is much more interesting if innovation is your focus:
Pharaoh Sneferu and his engineers had an audacious goal: they wanted to build the first smooth-sided pyramid and they wanted to make it larger than any pyramid built before. One key to increasing the size of the pyramid was the angle at which the sides rose from the base. So the engineers began to build the pyramid using a 54-degree angle. Part way up, they made some disquieting discoveries:
- the base of the pyramid was built on unstable ground and could not support the heavy structure,
- a larger pyramid required larger stones, which were cut in such a way that their weight pushed down towards the center of the pyramid, potentially causing the pyramid to collapse in on itself, and
- without the stable base and the larger stones, they could not build a pyramid at the desired 54-degree angle.
The physics of the project kept Sneferu’s engineers from achieving the vision. Rather than tearing down what they had built and then starting over again, they simply adjusted the angle of the sides, reducing it from the original 54 degrees to 43 degrees. In addition, they changed the way they cut and lay the stones, thus relieving some of the pressure on the structure.
These adjustments allowed them to build a smaller but stable pyramid. However, the resulting structure looked nothing like the intended design. Instead, the sides of the pyramid were bent to reflect the change in angle. For this reason, the pyramid is known as the Bent Pyramid.
Now here is where the story takes a really interesting turn. The Pharaoh had commissioned the largest and smoothest pyramid in the history of the world. What he got instead fell far short of that goal. Building a pyramid was typically a 10 to 20-year project, so he had what appeared to be a very expensive and time-consuming failure. Under these circumstances, firing the engineers or even executing them might be perfectly understandable.
Sneferu, however, did neither of these two expected things. Because he was inspired by the vision and convinced by the theory regarding the building angle, he gave his engineers another chance to achieve the vision. These highly innovative engineers next did something that smart innovators do: they examined their prior attempt, identified their errors and then modified their design to incorporate the lessons learned from the bent pyramid. The result was the Red Pyramid: the world’s first smooth-sided pyramid and, at that time, the world’s largest pyramid. How did they accomplish this? They built it at an angle of 43 degrees from its base.
A few years later, Sneferu’s son, Pharaoh Khufu, built the Great Pyramid of Giza that still stands today as a testament to the brilliant engineers of ancient Egypt. Its angle is 51.5 degrees.
For innovators there are several powerful lessons in this story:
- To improve your chances of success, do not make the mistake of innovating in a haphazard manner. The better approach is to innovate by using a series of disciplined experiments that are thoughtfully designed and carefully executed.
- While others may judge an experiment a success or failure based solely on its outcome, innovators need to take a different approach. An experiment that is not examined for lessons learned is a failure — regardless of its actual outcome.
- As you innovate, collect and share your knowledge. Your insights may form the basis for further innovation by others.
- Keep your sponsor on side. This means ensuring you both share a clear and compelling vision of the intended results of your innovation effort. And, it means clear communication throughout the project to ensure the sponsor understands when a flaw in method does not necessarily indicate a flawed vision.
- To the extent you can, choose a sponsor who knows the value of second chance in the hands of an intelligent innovator. What’s the sign of an intelligent innovator? You may not get it right the first time, but you can guarantee that you will not squander the experience.
The person who told me this story claimed that the key lesson was: choose your sponsor with care! As a practical matter, we cannot always choose our sponsors. In fact, I suspect that Sneferu’s engineers did not have much choice either. That said, we are not static creatures. Most of us do change and grow as we experience life. When you are engaged in innovation, you have to be open to that change and growth as you learn from your experiments. Just as importantly, you need to help those working with you change and grow at a similar pace — whether they be subordinates or sponsors. It is as you grow together that you develop the resilience to learn from disciplined experiments and then push forward with a better design and stronger execution towards your ultimate goal.
That is Pharaoh Sneferu’s angle on innovation. What is yours?
[Photo Credit: Evangeline Warren]
This post also appeared on LinkedIn.com