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On the surface, innovation labs and World War Two Britain don’t have that much in common, but actually there are some remarkable similarities – of what can be achieved when a small group of multi-disciplinary people get together around a common goal.

When people are given freedom to innovate outside the constraints of business as usual, and when people are allowed to move quickly and prototype. And that’s where aniseed balls come in.

Shortly before the start of the Second World War, a group of military planners realised that the bureaucracy and structure of Britain’s industry and government wasn’t set up for wartime. To be nimble, to respond to fast-changing situations, and to make the munitions, gadgets and special weapons Britain would need to win a war. With the gigantic Ministry of Supply which was responsible for sourcing virtually every piece of government issued equipment (however large or small) in 1930s Britain, how could it be? The Ministry wanted to control everything from the centre, seemingly with rules and regulations for every situation. Or at least, situations they had dealt with before. But war was going to be different, and these guys knew that the old rule book wouldn’t work. They were interested in the edges, and the myriad challenges they knew would fall outside of the normal.

So they set up something that was soon to be known as Churchill’s toy shop. A special mission? A task that needed equipment never dreamt up before? Turn to the toy shop. One such example was for the special forces divers, who needed a ship-sinking device. They needed an explosive mechanism that would stick firmly to a metal surface and have a time delay fuse that would allow a diver to escape to safety before detonation. Amazingly, before WW2 this had never been done before, and it was Churchill’s toy shop that designed and built the world’s first limpet mine.

This was trickier to do than you might imagine. The key thing was the detonator: clockwork or mechanical detonators could become unreliable in water. Instead they designed a detonator made up of a spring-loaded striker, held in a cocked position by a pellet soluble in water. Once the pellet dissolved, the striker would fire and detonate the mine. The toy shop turned to chemists all around the country to make such a ball - they needed thousands of them and they all had to be perfectly identical (if the ball dissolved inconsistently, the mine might explode at the wrong time). The experts struggled and struggled but nobody seemed able to do it.

They seemed at an impasse. Facing not only the challenge of finding the perfect detonator, but also of designing a new product from scratch and then putting it into mass production for use by thousands of marines. However, what they had on their side though was flexibility and a problem-solving approach free from the shackles of the monolithic Ministry of Supply. They weren’t looking for the perfect solution, they were looking for the solution that worked.

So, what did they find to use for the fuse? Aniseed balls. Yep, candy. Made by a huge confectionery firm who were producing balls of such amazing consistency that they dissolved perfectly every time and consequently were perfect to be used as an underwater fuse. And what’s more, they were producing millions of them, all identical in size, shape and composition.

The leap to using aniseed balls is remarkable but more importantly, Churchill’s toy shop was an innovation lab in its own right. Prepared to accept the unconventional. Achieving remarkable things by assembling teams of the right people with the right freedoms to be able to perform under challenging conditions. The rules didn’t apply (and maybe the constraints even stimulated their creativity), but equally the demands and expectations of the day were immense.

Unfortunately, there was no good ending for this particular innovation lab. By the end of the war their freewheeling attitude had pissed off the powerful Ministry of Supply a thousand times too often. In fact, its success was such a threat it had to be shut down. All that talent, knowledge and skill were lost – blown away by rivalry and jealousy. The toy shop succeeded at innovation but lost at transitioning to business as normal.

There’s a warning here for the innovation labs of today. Innovation is so often seen as the responsibility of a small team usually given a special mandate to do the impossible. And yet if innovation is buried inside the business or a separated into its own toy shop it will never make the leap to day-to-day business. Innovation should be a mentality shared across the entire business, instead of being something rejected when business conditions becomes less challenging.

Read more about our thinking on innovation labs here.

Isaac Pinnock

Isaac Pinnock Founding Partner

Isaac is a founding member of Made by Many, where he employs his experience in rapid web prototyping, and in transforming a set of business requirements into a viable and desirable customer experience. Isaac is an interaction designer who understands how to develop a service idea and make it real.

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