Innovation: The Wrong Trousers

Jono Byrne
Jun 14, 2017

“It’s the wrong trousers, Gromit, and they’ve gone wrong!”

In the animated movie ‘The Wrong Trousers’, hapless inventor Wallace and his long-suffering dog Gromit discover that a well-meaning technological ‘innovation’ can cause unintended and entirely unforeseen consequences.

For Wallace, the unintended consequence of his ‘wrong trousers’ brought him close to disaster. Fortunately, faithful hound Gromit came to his rescue.

Over a decade ago, I lived through my own ‘wrong trousers’ story.

In common with Wallace, a malfunctioning pair of ‘techno-trousers’ sits at the heart of my tale. But no canine hero was on hand to save the day…


The story of the ‘wrong trousers’…

Or, how an excruciating pain in the bollocks became the catalyst for a powerful lesson about ‘innovation’

In 2003, I led a small team of specialists testing and qualifying safety critical components of the aircrew life support system for the Eurofighter Typhoon, the super-agile combat aircraft being developed for the UK, German, Spanish, and Italian Air Forces. The team was based at the UK’s only ‘man-carrying centrifuge’ facility; a 50-tonne rotating mega-machine that recreates the physical and mental demands of ‘high G’ acceleration experienced by agile fast-jet pilots.

At the time, persistent problems with the aircrew life support system were causing a growing threat to the Typhoon’s test flight schedule. In particular, the advanced anti-G trousers (AGTs) that had been designed for Typhoon pilots seemed a long way from becoming a ‘production version’.

AGTs are strange ‘garments’ unfamiliar to the wider world. Worn over the top of a one-piece aircrew coverall, they incorporate inflatable plastic ‘bladders’ tightly constrained by a non-stretch outer fabric layer. At the onset of ‘high G’ forces, the bladders are filled with pressurised air delivered from an ‘anti-G valve’ in the aircrew life support system. The inflation of the garment literally ‘throttles’ the wearer’s legs and abdomen, pushing blood back towards the heart. Suitably engorged, the human heart can more readily pump blood up to the brain under conditions of ‘high G’ forces. This provides protection against the critical risk of G-induced loss of consciousness (GLOC); vital in a +9G capable aircraft.

In what should have been a routine test of the ‘version 10’ prototype AGTs, I was the unfortunate soul that discovered a critical design flaw.

Riding the centrifuge at +7G, a ‘pressure point’ in the inflated AGTs caused an unexpected outcome. By effectively ‘closing off’ part of the vein that exits from the left side of the scrotum, the AGTs prevented outflow of blood from the affected area. As I was to quickly discover, however, inflow of blood from the corresponding artery was very much maintained.

Within seconds, I was faced with a rapidly expanding left bollock and the pain was indescribable.

Whilst my colleagues characteristically treated the episode as high comedy, I exited the centrifuge ‘cockpit’ ashen faced and in dire need of a calming British cuppa.

Subsequent tests with other human volunteers revealed that around 50% experienced the same ‘inflationary’ problem. To add to the emerging fiasco, the trousers provided greatly reduced protection against the risk of GLOC compared to previous designs.

There could be no doubt that the version 10 AGTs were indeed the wrong trousers.

So what good came of this literal and metaphorical ‘kick in the ball(s)’?

Up to that point, the development of the AGTs had followed a model that will be (perhaps depressingly) familiar to many.

Major defence projects such as the Typhoon are curious animals. In most cases, Defence Ministries funding such projects are not purchasing an ‘off the shelf’ product that already exists. Instead, they are buying a ‘concept’ of a future system that will be developed against a ‘requirement’. Even a casual observer will appreciate that the relationship between ‘buyer’ and ‘seller’ in such cases is inherently complex.

The ‘buyer’ is reliant on its capability to ‘intelligently’ specify its requirements (and, of course, a means of assuring they’re satisfied).

The ‘seller’ meanwhile is reliant on its ability to interpret the specification requirements and on having a means of demonstrating compliance.

In developing an aircrew life support system, the situation is even more fraught in that testing the compliance of the system against the specification must, by definition, put human beings in harms way.

My specialist team sat slap bang in the middle of this difficult space between the ‘buyer’ and the ‘seller’. We were fortunate indeed to be supervised by Wing Commander (retired) Dr Andy Prior MBE, a world renowned titan of the aerospace medicine world. With Andy overseeing the vast majority of our work, both we and our team of human volunteer test subjects were in the safest possible hands.

The fiasco of the version 10 AGTs was, in my view, a consequence of 2 things:

  1. clumsy attempts to ‘manage’ the inherently complex set of relationships between the parties involved by separating people into defined ‘functions’
  2. failure to access (and use) the full knowledge, talents, and enthusiasm available within the ‘community’ of people involved

The version 10 AGTs (and its predecessors) were manufactured by a specialist sub-contractor working at the behest of the major defence industry contractor responsible for delivering the Typhoon aircrew life support system.

The process of developing the AGTs followed a monotonous pattern:

  • the major contractor would order production of a design variant;
  • this would be delivered to the centrifuge for assessment of compliance with specification;
  • Andy would then report our findings to the major contractor and to relevant officials in the Ministry of Defence;
  • the reports would be discussed in ‘high-level’ programme meetings, mostly attended by senior managers from the respective parties;
  • and then cycle would then begin anew!

Over the course of many, many months, version after version of the AGTs would pass through the centrifuge. Following only partially successful testing of version 9, the major contractor’s patience snapped.

Increasingly frustrated as the development schedule of the life support system fell further behind their ‘projections’, the major contractor pushed hard for a new and improved version of the AGTs. Having allegedly ‘kicked ass’ behind the scenes, project managers from the major contractor boldly asserted that they had ‘sorted’ the problems once and for all.

Unsurprisingly, when Andy delivered the damning verdict on the version 10s, the news was, ahem, ‘poorly received’.

Thankfully, 2 Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots who had personally endured ‘bollock inflation’ on the centrifuge provided incontrovertible backing for our findings.

We had arrived at an impasse. The major contractor was fed up; their specialist sub-contractor was fed up; the Ministry officials were fed up; the RAF pilots were fed up; and we (the testers) were fed up too.

It was pretty obvious what was causing the problem. There were too many layers between the people who knew exactly what the AGTs needed to do and the people actually making the things in a factory at the other end of the country.

Thankfully, sense prevailed and a small low-cost experiment was agreed. To cut straight through the intermediary layers, the specialist sub-contractor’s chief designer would be sent to the centrifuge for a fortnight, working alongside Andy, me, and the rest of the test team. Meanwhile, the RAF made 3 experienced fighter pilots available to assist the work.

With the designer now ‘on-site’, Andy and other team members were able to explain the flaws in the existing design. Face-to-face discussions, offering a multitude of simultaneous (but relevant) perspectives on the AGTs proved more effective than communicating via data and ‘test reports’.

Insights came from a range of sources in often ‘animated’ discussions:

  • the RAF pilots knew most about the ‘use case’ — the practicalities of using the garment in real operational conditions;
  • Andy, and (to a lesser extent) I knew most about the interaction between the function of AGTs and human physiology under conditions of ‘high G’;
  • our 2 Survival Equipment Fitters (‘Squippers’ in RAF parlance) had unmatched experience of fitting AGTs to the human form;
  • the designer’s expertise afforded immediate assessment of the feasibility of actually producing any suggested design changes.

After 2 days, the first ‘rapid prototype’ went into overnight production at the designer’s factory in the north of England. Arriving the next morning, the RAF pilots tested the new garment on the centrifuge, providing direct, immediate feedback to everybody involved. Further frenetic discussion ensued, and upon arrival of the next rapid design iteration, the cycle continued.

In 2 weeks, more progress was made than in the preceding 2 years

The resultant prototype looked, felt, and functioned nothing like its version 10 ‘wrong trousers’ predecessor.

In final testing, the RAF pilots declared the AGTs to be the best they had ever used.

A couple of years later, a delegation of visiting United States Air Force (USAF) test pilots visited the centrifuge to test AGTs being developed for their F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. Upon trying the ‘production version’ of the Typhoon AGTs, the USAF pilots were visibly astonished by their quality.

Working together, a small group of people had produced an undeniably ‘world class’ outcome.

The lessons…

So what did I learn from this cautionary tale?

  1. The main contractor fixated on complying with specification ‘metrics’ and delivering to a pre-determined development ‘schedule’; whilst this appeared ‘efficient’ and aligned with “what gets measured gets managed” conventional business ‘wisdom’, it actually caused delays, wasted resources, and frustration
  2. The ‘crisis of the version 10 AGTs’ led to a loosening of previously fixed ‘rules’ governing the distribution of the work and people’s roles within it; this opened a space for leveraging a greater diversity of relevant insights and the opportunity to combine those insights in real-time. As Cormac Russell would say, the emphasis became “about discoverables not deliverables”
  3. The new working ‘space’ enabled experts in use (RAF pilots) to interact directly with experts in function (Aerospace Physiologists & Squippers) and experts in production (Aircrew Clothing Designers); importantly, all of the required expertise already existed within the network of people involved in the Typhoon programme
  4. Novel ideas emerged from vibrant, almost anarchic discussions about the whole problem; focus was directed to the explicit overall purpose of developing the best possible AGT design. Pre-planned ‘work structure’ was replaced by open conversations that implicitly invited participation
  5. Most of the people involved had worked together for some time and shared a mutual respect. This stock of ‘social capital’ was vital in enabling the open, honest, and direct exchange of views that created a series of individually small (but collectively compelling) design changes
  6. There was ‘magic’ in the combination of the centrifuge itself (which had a rich 60-year history) and the ‘lively’ cast of characters involved in the work. The outrageous ‘barrack room’ humour, the shabby ‘crew room’ with its ageing faux-leather armchairs, the ritualistic (and frequent) mugs of tea. All of these things dissolved false ‘hierarchy’ and tacitly encouraged sharing. It was a vibrant, fun, and ‘humane’ workplace


The conclusion…

So, do I now have the answer to the all-too-common failure of ‘innovation/change’ projects?

Intellectual laziness could turn my observations on ‘the lessons’ into concrete ‘rules to follow’. It could even offer you a ‘good to great’ style recipe for success.

That would be fundamentally dishonest

In my story of the ‘wrong trousers’, I described a unique combination of characters working on a unique problem in a unique place. I won’t encounter the same combination of circumstances again, and neither will you.

Yet, threads of truth run through my tale; and if some or all of the ‘truths’ in my lessons are missing from your own ‘innovation’ landscape, I’m betting against your chances of success.

Sadly, our egos dream of our ability to plan for and control the future.

Like a wannabe Colonel Hannibal Smith of TV’s ‘A-Team’, we fantasise of puffing on a fat cigar as another carefully-crafted plan ‘comes together’.

Instead, maybe ‘innovation’ leadership could be modelled on a more modest ‘hero’…

Puffing on his pipe; only certain that he couldn’t (and shouldn’t) own all the answers; inviting and genuinely listening to the contribution of others. Never failing to delicately balance contemplation with action; ‘seen-it-all-before’ scepticism with insatiable curiosity; scientific rigour with intellectual flexibility; purpose with playfulness

Although he would’ve hated the label, the late Wing Commander Dr Andy Prior MBE was that very ‘hero’. RAF Typhoon pilots are safer in the skies thanks to his tireless work. More personally, I’m a better person for experiencing the light-touch wisdom of his tutelage.

In my next post, I’ll tell you a very different ‘innovation’ story. Undeniably ‘caught in the mood’ of a febrile ‘elite’ environment, I (unforgivably) lost sight of Andy’s timeless lessons and contributed no small part to a sorry tale of ‘innovation’ failure in sport…