What Chuck Yeager Taught Me About Disruption

While Russell Clarkson’s experience was with small wins, each of these small wins helped to build a culture that continually scanned the horizons for ways to enhance the work that was done. (03:30)

There is a story about a mock dog fight involving the famous military and test pilot, Chuck Yeager. It seems that a defecting Russian pilot had arrived in an advanced fighter and our government wanted to learn as much about the plane as possible. After experts in the Air Force determined that the plane was still inferior to our fighters, Chuck Yeager challenged a pilot in his squadron to a mock dog fight. Yeager would fly the Russian jet and his friend would fly an American jet. The pilot that was challenged was looking forward to finally out-flying Yeager and quickly accepted the offer.

Needless to say, try as he might, the other pilot continually found himself on the losing end of each encounter. Unable to understand how he could be beaten by an inferior plane, the pilot did some research of his own. He found out that Yeager had done his own review of the plane with one of the mechanics. He was not interested in what the plane was rated to do, but what it was actually able to do. By learning where he could push the boundaries, he was able to get additional performance out of the plane allowing him to continually outmaneuver his opponent.

The story taught me that you often need to look beyond the boundaries that have been placed on you to achieve extraordinary success. Some of the biggest disruptions occurring today are being done by companies that are coloring outside the lines in long established industries. More importantly, just as Chuck Yeager proved, you don’t need to have the fastest most technically advanced system to win. You just need to understand how to push outside the boundaries with an acceptable level of risk.

I learned this first hand when I led a technical team that was made up of people who liked to tinker with things. Not satisfied with out of the box functionality, they would push past the boundaries and ask the hardware or software to perform in ways that vendors had not considered. They did it by reviewing specifications and more importantly by trial and error in a safe environment. In a start up without a lot of money, these tests, tweaks and trials helped us get the most out of each solution or process. Disruption often occurs at the edges, but the larger success occurs as you bring them into the core of your operations.

While my experience was with small wins, each of these small wins helped to build a culture that continually scanned the horizons for ways to enhance the work that was done. We reached outside our organization and engaged our vendors and partners to work with us to find new ways to leverage what we had and consider new business models. Besides having a positive financial impact, it also made work a lot more fun.

I am not advocating total disregard for the procedures you are required to follow. I am suggesting that healthy questioning can lead to a disruption that moves from individual, to department, to company and potentially an entire industry. As another great pilot, the British World War I ace Harry Day once said, “Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools.” Let your rules guide you, not bind you.

For the latest thinking on Strategy follow me on Twitter; @rlclarkson

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