About a week ago stories started surfacing about the possibility of resurrecting the Avro Arrow as a potential replacement for the troubled F-35 Stealth Fighter purchase for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

For those who don’t share my adoration for the Arrow (otherwise known as the CF-105) I’ll provide a brief summary of its short life as the world’s most advanced fighter jet. In 1952 the RCAF submitted the Final Report of the All-Weather Interceptor Requirements Team to Avro Canada – an aircraft manufacturing company located in Malton, Ontario. In it they outlined the features that would be required to protect against the threat of jet powered high altitude Soviet bombers capable of dropping nuclear weapons on North American targets.

The resulting design achieved what was considered to be impossible at the time with test flights starting in March 1958. Through the pilot and test process the aircraft achieved a top speed of Mach 1.98 (although that was not the limit of its performance), and high-G turns at Mach 1.5 at 50,000 feet of altitude.

Suddenly in September 1958 then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker killed the program and ordered all prototypes, components, and even the revolutionary Orenda engines destroyed. There is much speculation about political drivers for the cancellation including potential influence from the United States, but as I write this all that still remains of the CF-105 is a full scale model replica at the Air and Space Museum in Toronto and some fond memories for those of us who choose to keep the memories of Canadian innovation alive.

To me there is are two clear leadership lessons that can be gleaned from both the historic view and the recent stories of a resurrection. I won’t wade into the political debate on should they or shouldn’t they – the outcome of that can be a measuring stick for the leadership capability of our current politicians.

The first lesson is that unless you as a leader set goals for your teams that seem unachievable due to current perceived constraints or limitations you will never actually learn what is possible. The RCAF report that started the Arrow saga asked for specifications that were impossible under current thinking, but without those requirements challenging the team we may never have learned of the potential of a Delta Wing or developed the revolutionary Orenda jet engine.

Think about the things that are “impossible” in your industry today and challenge those assumptions. Then challenge your teams to solve those problems. You will most likely be amazed at the answers that surface just by setting an “unachievable” goal. Even if the Avro engineers had only been successful in solving for 80% of the challenges they were given they still would have been successful in developing the most revolutionary aircraft of the time.

The second lesson is that we should never “kill” ideas and innovations. I’m not talking about the political debate about ending the Arrow program in 1958, but rather the thought of resurrecting an old innovative idea as a potential solution for a current problem. For whatever reason the Arrow wasn’t meant to be in 1958, but here we are in 2012 trying to solve for escalating costs on a US built stealth fighter and some resourceful engineer is raising that old innovation as the basis for a possible solution.

It’s for this reason that I love the idea of an Innovation Repository where we log and record all of the viable ideas that come from attempting to solve those “impossible” challenges, regardless of whether we implemented them or not. This repository becomes a tool kit that can be revisited for potential solutions to new problems – even decades into the future.

Think about the ways that you are challenging you teams, and think about the way that you are building the tools to help them solve those challenges. We could all stand to learn a few things from the long saga of the Avro Arrow.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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