The one with the bouncing bomb

When I was a kid and still living at home the question of what film to watch together was the topic of much debate. My Dad’s automatic reaction was always, without fail “Zulu” and whatever suggestion followed would be met with the question “is there any shooting in it?” I remember the look of desperation on his face when my Mum got him to sit through “Somewhere in Time”. At time I conceded (usually in the name of pocket-money) to sitting through one of his favourites and I now proudly confess I knew most of the words to “A Bridge too Far” at an early age.  One of his recurring favourites was (and still is) “The Dambusters” and he would tell me every time we watched it that Barnes Wallis also designed the Wellington bomber. I’m sure you all know the story – it’s the quest to bounce bombs into the dams of the Ruhr valley to significantly reduce the Nazi’s ability to manufacture.

So fast forward some years to a rainy Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, herself (being a world-class potterer) was doing various things around the house and I was yet again testing the effectiveness of the sofa as a host for my relaxation when I noticed “The Dambusters” was ‘live’ on TV. So I watched it.

Yes it’s a cracking film and yes being made nearly 60 years ago hasn’t aged that well but I sat happily engrossed in the story. It was only afterwards in reflecting on the film with a man called Keith that I started to think about some of the plot and how relevant it was to modern organisations and particularly to those trying to generate traction or change.

Barnes Wallis failed on numerous occasions before he got the bomb to successfully bounce. He persisted (in a Wile E. Coyote like fashion) to believe in his vision and to solve the problems that would stop him failing. He didn’t blame anyone for the failure and didn’t start to doubt his vision or belief – he just got on with it (to the point of wading into the water to collect bomb fragments).

The planes needed to fly incredibly low (60 feet as helpfully pointed out by Lydia) and the instruments of the day couldn’t measure that low – so they used two carefully positioned torches which when lined up would indicate the height. They needed to bomb from a specific position which they couldn’t judge effectively using the available systems so they used a small wooden device that lined up the structures of the dams to indicate the required position. They didn’t admit defeat they just calmly faced the problems and solved them.

It started me thinking about how both individually and through the vast machine that must have been the government and armed forces of that time were they able to continue to persist and to get the support and resources to take something from the drawing board to success in a relatively short space of time. I got past personal dedication, commitment, stubbornness and it was in their personal objectives (!!) fairly quickly and landed on imperative. Britain needed to reduce the manufacturing capacity of the enemy otherwise the war would be lost. I think it’s what a management consultant would refer to as a burning platform. Failure wasn’t an option.

We sit in organisations every day with visions and missions, purpose statements, objectives, milestones, intents, strategic goals and all nature of terminology surrounding what the organisation is trying to achieve. If in reading them they don’t create a sense of failure not being an option then stop, think and do them again. They MUST create a sense of imperative.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “The one with the bouncing bomb

  1. Lovely story. Sounds like the bomb squad knew what the goal was, and others got out of their way and gave them space to solve the problem. Their approach is a creative and effective one. For all the modern day talk of creativity it probably manifests itself less now than it did in Dambuster days. I wonder why…?

    • Doug – interestingly I think they made the space rather than it being given by being low profile but their approach is definitely a creative one!! As to the manifestation I’m not sure – too much technology perhaps?

  2. Lydia

    think it was more like 60 than 600 feet? 🙂

  3. Yes. Nice blog, your usual fabulous style, great storytelling and excellent structure. The sweet spot is the way to allow innovation to flourish; get out of the way, let persistent people do their thing in pursuit of something ground breaking and in need of experimentation and the commitment shown in sticking with the overall mission. Lessons galore in here. Are you listening UKPLC? Der, Der Der Der de de Der Der. Der, Der Der Der de de Der Der….

  4. Of course the impact of the Dam Busters raid was dramatic and wide-felt though not critical to the war and the cost in lost men and aircraft was high.

    Lydia is right to point out the height of the bombers was restricted to 60 feet – controlled by the spotlights reflecting on the water – quite remarkable given they were in an aircraft with a wingspan on 102 feet!

    Your example of Barnes Wallis as one showing calm, relentless, focussed effort on a path to solve problems in pursuit of a mission and vision is really interesting. Don’t forget though that vision was a personal one rather than being shared with his organisation and colleagues.

    It should be remembered, Barnes Wallis had to circumvent the command structure, using political contacts and influence to prevent the project being killed off by Bomber Command at a time when the mission’s value and chance of success looked uncertain.

    In that context, Barnes Wallis looks more like a bit of a maverick working disruptively and counter-culturally within his organisation. I don’t think this detracts in any way from your point about the motivating imperative or the dedication and persistence in pursuing goals.

    Did you know there has been talk of a remake of the film by Peter Jackson?

    • Vince – yes Lydia was correct. That’ll teach me to work from memory when Wikipedia is available!!

      The same Wikipedia article questions the level of resistance from bureaucracy but his clear breaking of process is something I am fond of (see tomorrow’s post!!)

      And Yes I did hear of remake which given the advances in technology and increased release of information from that time should make it a belter. That said – what will they call the dog??!

  5. Good stuff. Thanks Rob. I too loved that film as a child and as an adult.
    In workshops I often use the example of Appollo 13 as a compelling imperative – when the engineers are asked to create a CO2 filter from the scraps available on board. ‘Be creative, or the crew will die’ seems a pretty good incentive.
    These difficult times produce many challenges requiring innovative solutions.
    By the way, in my previous incarnation as an actor, I was asked to audition for “A Bridge too Far”. I didn’t get the job, though other mates did. It was clearly a poorer film for my lack of involvment!

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