How to learn from a nuclear missile

One great way to learn is to study a field you know little about. By becoming a tourist, a traveler, it’s easier to be curious. You can ask big questions since you’re free from the baggage of being right or sounding smart. This is one reason films like Apollo 13Hoosiers, and Miracle are popular films among management types looking for inspiration: the  fact that they are stories that reflect common challenges business face, but are not business stories, gives them more potency, not less.

One recent find is the story of the Polaris nuclear missile management team. Could you design a breakthrough technology, under competition, short deadlines and with the defense of the free-world at stake? These folks did.

The story is told by the boringly titled book The Polaris System Development. Although published by Harvard University Press, its not easy to find. The best summary I’ve found is from, of all places, Budapest University. Here’s an excerpt:

Once given the mandate and start-up funds, the SPO had an enormous task – to bring into being an entirely new weapons system. This included nuclear powered submarines, then in their infancy, global navigation and communication systems, missile systems, launching systems, fire-control systems and maintenance, support and training programs.

Most of these components did not exist at the time – many were still only on the drawing board. All had to be designed, built, tested and integrated into one workable unit and made operational, from scratch — within five years! Building a weapons system based on the promise of one or two technologies was not unusual, but doing it on a dozen technologies was.

Read the entire summary/analysis of the book (PDF). It’s an easy read and I promise will have you thinking more deeply about your own business than your standard case studies will.

Update: here’s an additional summary and recommendation.

Hat tip to Steven Smith for recommending the Polaris story.

Have other great stories of management and innovation from unusual projects? Leave a comment.

[Note: this article originally written for Harvard Business Review.]

3 Responses to “How to learn from a nuclear missile”

  1. Mike Nitabach

    So glad for this heads up! I am addicted to books like this, and one of my favorites is “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”, by Richard Rhodes. I just impulse-bought this one on Amazon: a used copy for $150.

  2. Patrick Berry

    Check your local library. I happen to work in one, and found that we have it on the shelf.


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