Innovation leadership from Hugh Iorys Hughes

The sea, beaches and messing about in boats, have been a part of my life since childhood, including a near-miss drowning in Wales when I was ten. I have a fascination with lighthouses too, their perilous location, the history, the bravery and exploits of the keepers.

I am now lucky enough to live really near the sea and one of my favourite things to do is to watch the sunset from Deganwy over to the beach at Conwy and Anglesey, where family holidays as a child remain a clear memory, and the Brookes family originates from.

Part of the Conwy beach is known as ‘The Morfa’ and was the location of the construction of floating Mulberry Harbours, which played a key role in the D-Day landings, of which we recently celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary. It was a local man, Hugh Iorys Hughes, who led the innovation and development of the Mulberrys, used to offload supplies onto the beaches during the Allied ‘Operation Overlord’ on 6 June 1944.

Winston Churchill’s famous memo ‘Piers For Use On Beaches’ of May 1942, issued two years before the D-Day landings to Admiral Mountbatten, sought a solution to the challenge of landing on the beaches: Piers for use on beaches. They must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let me have the best solution worked out. Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.

Hughes was born and educated in Bangor before gaining a First Class Honours degree in engineering at Sheffield University. He was from a family of keen sailors and often raced on the Menai Strait with his father and two brothers. After graduating, he established himself as a civil engineer in London. One of his early works was the design for the dry dock that berthed the Cutty Sark in Greenwich.

In response to Churchill’s request, Hughes sent his idea and drawings to the War Office but his initiative wasn’t taken up until his brother Sior Hughes, a Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, impressed the scheme on a senior colleague and the idea was reconsidered.

In June 1942, Hughes was one of several engineers asked to produce plans for a floating harbour that could be towed to Normandy and installed on the shallow beaches. Hughes worked tirelessly on his vision. Prototypes were built and launched at the estuary of the River Conwy and Irish Sea, which he knew to be suitable from his time sailing along the North Wales coast.

With the initial prototypes a success, in October 1942, construction of three concrete caissons with steel towers (code named ‘Hippo’) and two steel bridging road units (code named ‘Croc’) commenced at the Conwy Morfa. Astonishingly, even with around 1,000 men on site, the work remained secret.

By May 1943, the gigantic constructs were ready and were towed to Garlieston, Scotland for full-scale sea trials, along with other designs. The plan for the Mulberry Harbours was now coming together. In the final decision, the Hippos and Crocs were not used on D-Day, however, part of the final design was taken from Hughes’ Hippos to form the floating pontoons, called Phoenix Caissons, and his Mulberry Harbours were also used.

Disguised as a French fisherman, Hughes made several visits to Normandy to take soundings and record tidal movements. He also developed methods for towing, sinking and anchoring the Caissons, and he helped with installation in June 1944. His role and innovation behind the D-Day project was disclosed to Parliament on 21 December 1944.

The final construction process was one of the biggest civil engineering efforts of the war. It involved 40,000 men constructing 212 caissons, 23 pierheads and ten miles of floating roadway. Two Mulberry harbours, built at Conwy, were towed across the Channel in prefabricated sections and used as breakwaters at Arromanches on the British ‘Gold’ beach, and on the American ‘Omaha’ beach.

At the Nuremberg Trials, Albert Speer, Nazi minister of armaments, was forced to admit that the Germans’ efforts in Northern France had been ‘brought to nothing because of an idea of simple genius’. The makeshift floating harbour was one of the greatest military achievements of all time.

Hughes died in 1977, and his ashes were spread in the Menai Straits. His former family house in Bangor is now part of the University, and has a Blue Plaque in his honour. There is also a plaque to his memory in the museum at Arromanches. A memorial stone and plaque commemorates the work of the people who worked on the Mulberry project on Conwy Morfa.

The Mulberry Harbours were a vital innovation, contributing to the success of the D-Day Landings allowing thousands of tonnes of vehicles and goods to be put ashore in Normandy. Hughes’ invention was an amazing feat, where ingenuity and the need for radical new thinking to face the challenge was needed, a ‘can do’ spirit in the face of adversity.

Today’s innovations are developed in less demanding environments and in response to less troublesome circumstances, with ‘innovation labs’ housing dedicated teams and resources curating new thinking. Hughes’ bold experiments were in a time of real crisis and emergency, but it’s not unusual for innovation to be stimulated in times of hardship.

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw several successful companies that did not delay investment in their future. One was DuPont. In April 1930, Wallace Carothers, a research scientist, recorded the initial discovery of neoprene (synthetic rubber). At the time, DuPont were suffering financially. However, maintaining a long-term view on their strategy, DuPont boosted R&D spending.

Neoprene, which DuPont publicly announced in November 1931 and introduced commercially in 1937, became a major C20th innovation. By 1939, every car and plane manufactured in the United States had neoprene components. Similarly, DuPont discovered nylon in 1934 and introduced it in 1938 after intensive product development.

When Henry Ford’s first Model T rolled off the assembly line, listening to music in the car meant the passengers were singing. At the time, two brothers, Paul and Joseph Galvin, who had started Chicago’s Galvin Manufacturing to sell electric converters for battery-operated radios, needed new revenue after the Wall Street Crash.

By teaming up with William Lear, who owned a radio parts company in the same factory building, and audio engineer Elmer Wavering, they installed the first car radio in May 1930. The next month, Paul drove 800 miles to a radio manufacturers’ convention in Atlantic City. Lacking a booth inside, he parked his car near a pier and cranked up the radio, coaxing attendees to look and listen. Orders began flowing in. In 1933, Ford began offering factory-installed radios from the brothers, and Galvin Manufacturing changed its name to Motorola.

Thus although crises are destructive, they can also have an upside. Economist Joseph Schumpeter emphasised the positive consequences of crises, and that’s because adversity breeds innovation as ‘a mother of necessity’. Facing difficulty is a time when people’s best emerges. Facing adversity has a way of summoning strength and resolve like no other set of circumstances.

In a crisis, startups frequently struggle to find the right balance between caution and optimism. No one knows what will happen next, and it is crazy to operate your business as though you do. But the more volatile the times, the more essential it is to keep your options open. Thus, taking less risk (closing down innovation options) is actually more dangerous than investing to preserve a number of future-focused options.

Creativity loves constraints, so think of an economic downturn or a setback as a ’reset”, spurred by hard times it’s a chance to start over. And it’s not just ‘hard times’ that create these conditions, Seth Godin coined the term ‘Forever Recession’, suggesting that apart from the cyclical recessions that inevitably come and go, we are living in a continuous state of crisis as businesses are challenged by constant disruption and a fast-changing economy, and that can be a very good thing because it forces us to change and adapt faster.

In short, as shown by Hugh Iorys Hughes, crisis can inspire us to be more innovative and productive, so what can we learn from his exploits in developing the floating harbours to take into our C21st business innovation thinking?

Drive the innovation agenda Truly successful innovation efforts start at the top. Startup founders’ vision must continue to drive the innovation agenda during and through any dip in fortunes. Rather than easing back on innovation, a relentless pursuit of the vision energised by the founder is needed to ensure success. Hughes did just that in 1944, leading 1,000 men on the Conwy Morfa in pursuit of a vision that helped change the outcome of the war.

Innovate with purpose When facing a crisis, startups need to prioritise their investment in a way that moves beyond just profitability and centres on its core purpose. Simon Sinek’s classis ‘What is your why?’ comes to mind here, having a sense of purpose and aspiration beyond your day-to-day commercial mission makes a company more innovative and more able to disrupt or respond to disruption.

Be ruthless in prioritising Hughes had a clear focus and had to be strategic, whilst also experimenting to build and test a series of prototypes. When resources are scarce, avoid ‘walking dead’ projects and be ruthless when it comes to making decisions on when to pull the plug.

Hughes would have been asking key questions such as How much risk remains? What’s the time needed to get to the next stage? What is the true cost of the next round of tests and what learning will they provide?

Startup innovation isn’t just about creativity and generating new ideas, it’s about aligning innovation with strategy. Avoid the temptation to prioritise short-term efforts that promise immediate payback over longer-term efforts with more questionable returns. Potential rather than performance alone is the right guide for innovation decisions.

Focus on ‘adjacency innovation’ In a crisis, operating with finite resource and under time pressure to deliver an outcome, business leaders must figure out how to do more with less. Rather than make big bets on a single, radical innovation, consider allocating resources to ‘adjacency innovations’, which can be less risky but still generate good pay-offs. Hughes did this on the Morfa, exploring three potential floating harbour designs simultaneously.

Be bold Make sure your innovation strategy includes building and testing scenarios that elicit unstated and as-yet-unrecognised potential in the near and long term. Use the insights for learning. In short, make sure you are a problem solver in tough times – which is exactly what Hughes was.

Hughes showed that innovation thrives when faced with no other choice, proving that necessity truly is the mother of innovation. When faced with challenges, it’s human nature to want to hunker down and just protect the nest. But instead, strike out with vigour, audacious thinking and be intrepid.

Today is the age of rapid technology-led disruption, but it’s only just kicking in, and as a result, ‘crisis’ will become a more common occurrence for organisations.  It’s essential that innovation leaders respond positively and are more flexible, responsive and socially oriented.

Some may view this is an insurmountable challenge, but I see it as an opportunity to take a lesson from the heart and mind of Hugh Iorys Hughes. Be an emboldened innovation thinker, and make your mark where and when it’s needed most.

Reflections from D-Day: camaraderie & selflessness

Friday saw the 70th anniversary of D-Day, 6 June 1944, when Allied Forces launched a combined naval, air and land assault
 on Nazi-occupied France. Codenamed Operation Overlord, the Allied landings on the Normandy beaches marked the start of a long and costly campaign to liberate north-west Europe from German occupation.  I also wonder whether it was the pivotal day of the C21st. It was certainly the greatest team effort of that century.

Just after midnight, the Allied assault began. The operation caught the German military command unaware. Low tides and bad weather – combined with Allied deception plans – had convinced the Germans that an attack was unlikely at that time. As more than 1,000 British bombers began to pummel Normandy’s coastal defences, Rommel, commanding German defences in France, was in Germany celebrating his wife’s birthday.

The initial Allied assault was made by airborne infantry, who secured key bridges and crossroads on the flanks of the landing zone. Some of their most important and celebrated achievements included the capture of Pegasus Bridge and the town of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. Commandos also attacked key targets ahead of the main landings. One remarkable feat was the attack by US Rangers on Pointe-Du-Hoc, a headland which housed a coastal battery that threatened the landing beaches. The successful assault involved scaling a 30m cliff face under German fire.

At 6.30am, US soldiers went ashore by landing craft at Utah and Omaha beaches. An hour later, the British and Canadians arrived at the beaches of Gold, Juno and Sword. When British and Canadian troops landed, the tide was high, leaving fewer metres of beach to traverse. Although mines sunk a number of boats, soldiers succeeded in silencing German machine guns within half an hour.

At the day’s end, although they had not yet taken their objective of Caen, the soldiers had penetrated six kilometres inland, and their foothold in Normandy was secure and could begin their advance into France. At 6pm, when Churchill addressed the House of Commons, it was to announce the astounding success of an operation, which would go down in military legend.

Enemy gunfire has never sounded in my ears, the anxiety of an unseen enemy has never entered my body, the life and death sacrifice of fighting for my country has never been a choice for me to consider. These realities are a result of the freedoms I have, and I am grateful for all who have accepted the work to defend my country.

Despite my intellectual understanding of the realities of war, I spent most of last Friday with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat watching and listening to the poignant stories and pictures of frail, yet spirited men, most in their 90s, distil their recollections of that momentous day.  Age had finally wearied them. They marched proudly on Sword Beach with stiff legs, bent backs and, in some cases, tears in their eyes.

As D-Day passes over the horizon of living memory, nowhere do you feel the power of teamwork, shared purpose and ultimately shared sacrifice more than in a military cemetery. Looking across the thousand upon thousand of white stone graves at the Normandy Cemeteries, gazing out across the English Channel, it takes your breath away. It is almost beyond imagination to realise the bravery of these men, who put aside their personal freedom, their individuality and paid the ultimate price.

I was struck by a number of thoughts from the D-Day commemoration around teamwork, notably how a small team of motivated individuals can beat a much larger, well-provisioned adversary. But overriding this, it was camaraderie that struck me as the lifeblood of a team. It is what fuels results, and it was that emotion which filled my senses on Friday from the veterans.

Without it, fractured relationships slow down a team, the team is more readily blindsided by surprises and may not withstand the impact. Without camaraderie individuals fight for recognition tearing apart that palpable connection. The sense of the D-Day veterans was that they were part of a team, and that camaraderie was what made the coastal invasion a success.

However, there were a number of other factors contributing to the D-Day victory, which I think we can take into our everyday business thinking.

Vision is important Without vision an organisation will lack direction, focus and purpose. Vision takes individual concerns and focuses the team, giving them confidence. This fosters teamwork on a number of levels. While seemingly attainable, a true vision lies just beyond achievable. When the team accomplishes things it didn’t at first believe possible during its journey to achieve the vision, everyone’s confidence is boosted and team development is furthered. The D-Day landings showed the unifying power and purpose of a vision under extreme circumstances.

Planning Strategising in a chaotic environment is essential, many unforeseen factors affect the outcome of a plan – the weather was the biggest issue on D-Day. Planning for contingencies is imperative in business too, the externalities we face can create a chaotic environment in which planning becomes even more critical. I am a big believer in a one-page business strategy and a plan that keeps things simple, focuses on top priorities, key actions and leaves flexibility to change as conditions evolve. It’s the planning not the plan, which is vital.

Inspiration Having a big, meaningful goal is a tremendous force for motivation, and cohesion. The D-Day mission was not some vague, abstract adventure, rather it was tangible, concrete, easy to understand and internalise for all involved. While each veteran I saw interviewed had his own particular story, everyone had a common and powerful pride in what they had accomplished and in the people around them. It was frankly overwhelming and astounding. Even in the best organisations I have worked with, in my experience, such a core consistency of inspiration to achieve an outcome and pride in its achievement is extremely rare. Of course, most organisations don’t have a mission as inspirational as the British forces did that day.

Relationships mean everything During the most adverse encounters a team will ever face, the relationships and friendships between its members bind them together. Hardships create strong bonds within a team, which in turn, serves to strengthen the team even more. Trusting one another and, in turn, developing real relationships will inevitably lead to teams that will overlook individual motives in place of team objectives.  Simply put, interaction fuels action and a collective resolve, mental strength in a crisis.

Listen to everyone, but trust your own judgment Imagine the military briefings on D-Day. Leaders gather to discuss mission parameters, variables, strategies and tactics, and while everyone weighs in with their opinion, ultimately, the highest-ranking leader makes the decision. In business, one bad decision may not mean ‘life or death’, but it can have a detrimental impact on the fate of your business.

Every situation you encounter and every decision you make is different. There is no easy or single formula for success. The best leaders are those who listen to everyone, are receptive to advice and seek to learn from others – yet have an unwavering trust and confidence in themselves to always make the best decision possible. At the end of the day, you are accountable for your business, and, as such, trusting your own judgment is paramount.

No one is left behind Wounded and dead soldiers are carried on comrade’s backs and inside crowded vehicles to safety, or to a proper burial. Everyone counts, and everyone looks out for each other was a clear message from the veterans. Everyone crosses the line together. That makes for a highly effective team and for a sense of safety despite the perilous circumstances, just knowing that someone’s got your back. Pulling each other together and watching for each other’s success is what Henry Ford said: Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.

It’s not about you We all have a propensity to think we live in a bubble. You don’t.  As a business leader, this truth carries more importance, as whatever your ambitions or challenges, fostering teamwork demands equality. Each person or role has its place, and they are self-defined based on the team dynamic, creating balance, and respect for them. Respect isn’t just an altruistic ethic, it’s a necessity. It was there in bundles in the hearts, minds and voices of the veterans.  Whilst most companies are well integrated when it comes to race and creed (less so gender), when it comes to respect among individuals, most organisations have a lot to learn.

100% performance From moment to moment, the D-Day landings exposed the Allied men to an extraordinary degree of danger. But they made it look simple and got on with it, despite their fear. The key is training, training, training, and total focus and dedication when you are on the line. The activity on the beaches from videos of the day looks a little random and pretty informal – no tight formations, but in the end, you realise you’ve watched an amazingly choreographed event, with an underlying intelligence and efficiency that comes from a lot of people working together to optimise the total performance of the organisation. But it wasn’t about the organisation, it was about the individuals, giving 100%.

Function as a team Teamwork is critical in military context, as it is in business. In the D-Day landings, the separation between the officers and the troops was very limited. They dressed alike, got their fill of sand and sea water alike, and while there was equality, there was also clarity of function, such that every team member knew their role and became their best.

Many of the veterans referred to their Captains, often the first to die on the charge up the beaches. This was literally about leading from the front, and in such circumstances, decision-making isn’t a democracy – the leader is in charge and their behaviour shows this. We’re only as strong as our weakest soldier is the reality, and in military situations, one weak soldier can cost not only his own life but also the life of the whole team. Therefore, everyone has to pull together to make sure the team functions well and survives. At the same time, weaker players get the team’s support to bring them on par with the rest. The mutual commitment to success is strong.

Team debrief Allowing your team to have a real voice and offer transparent feedback is one of the things that really builds camaraderie in a team. Again the veterans recounted the after action debriefs, a review of the tough lessons learned from each event, to constantly improve tactics. In the same way, successful business leaders learn as much from their failures as their successes, but as long as you collect the right intelligence and properly apply what you have learned to the next situation, you can ensure more successes than failures down the road.  Building a culture around transparency is a key tool to building effective, high performing teams.

Team training Always be learning and always be training, the D-Day campaign saw rehearsals of every single stage prior to execution.  As mentioned above, once a mission is completed, one of the most important elements in the debrief is the discussion of lessons learned. What are we going to take away from this operation to help us improve as a team and always develop as an organisation?  The most successful companies are often the most innovative.  So how do they become innovative? They do so by encouraging and supporting growth, providing resources for constant learning, and rewarding creativity.  People succeed when they are inspired and excited to come to work, and given the skills for growth.

The success of any military unit, sports team or business doesn’t just come from great leadership and management, it comes from the alliance, connectivity and contribution of the individual team members, working in a collaborative environment. The D-Day landings showed this in circumstances that most of us are unlikely to experience.

For me it was the camaraderie and sheer selflessness in the veterans that gave me a new definition of teamwork: selfless acts towards a common goal. Selflessness is perhaps the most important element for an individual in a team.  Once individuals act selflessly, the goals of the team are within reach. Not bad principles for a business.