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Pens + Pencils

Innovation in Business

January 17, 2022

During the cold war, one of the measures the United States and the Soviet Union utilized to establish their bonifies as a predominant superpower was the space race. For years, the jockeying back and forth for supremacy was followed closely as the world watched and waited to see who would come out on top.

Of the many and varied innovations that each of these governments produced in their pursuit of this endeavor — there is one that stands out. Even though it seems relatively minor, it speaks to a broader point about innovation.

Innovation in the U.S.

NASA realized during the course of the mercury program that the ballpoint pens that they used would only work consistently in an environment where there is gravity to pull the ink to the tiny roller ball at the end. The result of using a standard ballpoint pen in gravity-free environment was not unlike the one we have all experienced when trying to fill out a receipt at a restaurant. General frustration, scribbling in an otherwise unassuming corner, inconsistent results.

The engineers at NASA set about designing a pen that came to be known by the company name of the civilian contractor that invented it — the Fisher space pen. This was a pen with a vacuum tube inside that forced the ink forward with air pressure, allowing the pen to work properly, and, as an added benefit — yes — you can actually write upside down with it.

The pen was a huge success both with astronauts and has become part of the cultural lexicon associated with the golden age of space exploration.

It is important to note that the development and procurement of the pen cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in research and development. What can be purchased now for around $30 cost as much as a luxury SUV as part of the kit sent with Gemini and Apollo astronauts after its invention.

The Soviet Union’s Solution

A world away, the Soviet’s solution to the same problem was a bit different. There was already a technology in existence that provided a consistent means of providing written recorded information. You likely have access to this technology already. It’s the pencil.

Occom’s razor — the idea that the simplest solution is generally the right one — is sometimes an oversimplification. But, under the right circumstances and with the right testing, it can save time and resources. In planning, sometimes strategy can get so heavy with process pieces, data and design that you can develop a solution that can rob resources and attention from the straight line to achieving your goals.

To be fair, I have a couple of space pens. They are useful for a wide array of reasons. But as we face resources and time that is ever scarcer — it’s important to keep in mind a pencil will do the same job a million-dollar pen will.

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Joseph R. Benesh

Joe Benesh is the president and CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, organizational development and design thinking firm based in Des Moines. He can be reached at joe@ingenuitycompany.com and (305) 450-9120.