Necessity – The mother of all inventions?

By Sonja Chirico Indrebø

When is the necessity such that we are most likely to find new solutions?  Do we need to have a big problem or is a small problem but with a long irritation span enough?

I found the Apollo 13 mission a real proof of the heading above, although I’m not sure there were that many mothers amongst the engineers in the Houston Space Center.  The problem at hand was that after an explosion onboard the Apollo 13, they had to save on electricity and oxygen.  The engineers in Houston faced the problem that although the astronauts could make it back to earth, they would not have enough air to survive the time needed to return.  At the space station in Houston they then copied all the parts that they knew where available in the space station and within an extremely short timespan managed to invent a new gadgets that could clean CO2 out of the air so that they could survive.

When do we in our everyday work feel the necessary sense of urgency to put our best efforts together and invent a solution to an important problem? Since I was little and learnt about this story I have always had it in the back of my mind when I have faced a problem – what do I have available and how could that solve the issue I am facing?

Could this be an interesting exercise for you and your team to play the role of the ground team in Houston and sit together and solve issues that you know your business is trying to solve?  The start could be the famous words of: Houston we have a problem!

Maybe you need a mother to join :-), at least I fit in that category being the proud mother of three children!! So what do you think it takes for you and your team to get inspired and be innovative together?


  1. Kjell-Inge Solbrekk
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 7:32 PM | Permalink | Reply

    That story told by Sonja was great and a further wake up call for us all, where people should get straight to the point or heart of the problem; I also believe that at times we are very often not looking directly at the problem but trying at times to look to much for difficult solutions before dealing with the problem… That can of course be for several reasons and situations; however, sometimes the best ideas developer quicker when we are under stress and pressure to find solutions like the space station in Houston.

    In the future I will echo Sonja’s story to my team members when they are having an emergency or facing a critical situation.

    • Posted June 24, 2012 at 12:54 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Kjell-Inge
      It’s nice to read that you have been inspired. I hope you are successful with your future innovations!

    • RK
      Posted September 25, 2012 at 5:37 AM | Permalink | Reply

      Kjell-Inge is right. everyone is looking for the “big” answer. start small and chip away. You end up blinded from the obvious. Check this out, it satisfied my curiosity of this idea I had since the first fuel crisis here in America from the ’70’s

  2. kvasbo
    Posted June 21, 2012 at 11:12 AM | Permalink | Reply

    I think necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and that urgent and pressing needs might lead to ingenious and efficient solutions. As seen in the Apollo 13 incident.

    However, “ingenious” and “efficient” in IT is often not very easy to combine with “elegant”, “future proof” and “standardised”.

    When creating an endpoint for a solution (for example a program that simply consumes available data and shows it to the user), there is absolutely nothing wrong with quick and dirty solutions. If they break, just re-make the entire thing. Often, that’s more efficient than extensive planning and design.

    However, I see this approach as deadly when dealing with more complex issues or systems that are being relied upon by other solutions. It is very easy to end up taking a lot of small steps that, when seen separately, solve problems in ingenious and efficient ways, but that when put together creates a solution that is impossible to keep maintaining and developing due to a steadily rising number of quick and dirty fixes made in the past, who all need to keep working.

    There are plenty of real world examples of this – systems that become so complex over time that there is nothing to save in the end – a full restart is needed.

    On board Apollo 13, desperate times inspired a great solution; but it was all made possible by the fact that the capsule and its parts was not to be re-used and that the final goal was easily seen and indeed final. It’s not often you have that luxury!

    • Posted June 24, 2012 at 1:16 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Kvasbo

      I agree with you that complexity is a challenge and also a Life Cycle approach and not just introduce quick fixes. I guess this is not black or white but having the skills to practise how to build on eachother in teams is always an asset and hopefully make you able to find innovative solutions quicker when under pressure to do so.

  3. Fabio Lapponi
    Posted June 22, 2012 at 8:57 AM | Permalink | Reply


    Intuitively, necessity is a major component to trigger big invention but I would like to make a consideration…. I recently red an antropology book where the author analyses the development of technology based societies in the world. Amazingly, many inventions who changed the way of living on entire societies were not “devivered” by a different mother, a different necessity and they found their matural accomplishment when a new necessity arose in those societies, somethimes after decades or even centuries. So indeed Necessity is the mother of all inventions but she is a “step mother”. Something to think about :)

  4. E. H. Solvang
    Posted June 22, 2012 at 9:13 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Interesting blog post. The Apollo story leaves no doubt about the innovative powers that can be triggered by necessity. However, I notice that the title contains a question mark after the famous Albert Einstein quote. And I guess this means that you are open to alternative mothers giving birth to new inventions. How about rephrasing it to: “Opportunity – The surrogate mother of certain inventions”?

    Waiting until there is a problem that makes innovation a necessity is, with all respect of many great inventions, a bit reactive. Being able to identify new opportunities before the problem arises is at least as important. In some situations I think we could benefit from a more proactive, opportunistic mindset. Some teams should probably be allowed to spend a certain amount of time thinking outside the box, rephrasing the famous words to “Houston, we have an idea!”

  5. David
    Posted July 5, 2012 at 4:12 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Because they had to ‘sling shot’ around the moon there was a chance they would have come down there without communication with earth. There was a team doing a ‘risk analysis’ on that possibility and how to recover. Unfortunately we only focus on the obvious.

    • Posted August 29, 2012 at 11:18 AM | Permalink | Reply

      You don’t achieve if you do not try. Remember the story about the light bulb.

  6. Posted July 21, 2012 at 10:33 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Necessity is the mother of innovation, no doubt, but we should not forget who the father is. Time or more preciselly the “lack of time”. In the case of Apollo 13 they had an extremely tight schedule for coming up with a solution. That is also why times of war have been innovative. You have to come up with something better than your enemy before him.

    For us who are software / IT professionals by education this is important. The majority of failed software based business improvement initiatives failed due to an unclear problem statement and infinite time. In this respect there is a lot to learn from the late Steve Jobs and the practices that has become the DNA of Apple. That DNA is comprised of two things expressed in a packet of questions:

    – What would make a radical change for the customer?
    – Where can we take the customer?
    – Where can we take the customer in three months?
    – Where can we take the customer i a year?
    – Where can we take the customer in three years?

    Of these five questions two are more important than the remaining: What would make a radical change to the customer and where can we take the customer in three months.

    The first question frames the necessity. The second question frames the timeframe. Now I guess that some of you would like to say: Isn´t it more important to think big and start out with three years. Off cause is big thinking important, but innovation is the child of need and lack of time. And remember that a year is not more than 4 times 3 months, so if you are not able to deliver something revolutionary in three months, you will fail to deliver in twelve and thirty-six months timeframes.

    So never ever forget who the parents of successful innovation are: A well defined need or necessity combined with limited time to find a fix.

    Have a nice summer.

  7. Posted September 2, 2012 at 12:02 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Customer (user) acceptance is the key. Sociological change, such that acceptance of new solutions is the driving force, not just the technology. After Edison invented the light bulb, it took 40 years for acceptance. After the light bulb was commercialized and announced to the world (about 1888) with wide media coverage, the light bulb was considered as a toy despite the hundreds of millions without light.

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  1. […] the common phrase I love “necessity is the mother of invention.” Here I paraphrase a blog I found after looking up the […]

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