How do you nail a billion-dollar innovation, like Elon Musk? Ask a Medieval monk…

Richard Wallace

Have you ever had a dream? Perhaps you’ve dreamt of starting a business. Running a marathon. Singing on Broadway. Playing for England. Cooking a twelve-bird roast and eating it around a big banquet table, like a Tudor monarch. Or perhaps, like Elon Musk, you have a humble dream of singlehandedly reimagining the scientific possibilities for space travel in order to colonise a previously uninhabitable planet and save humanity from almost certain destruction. Whatever floats your boat.

Well, way back in 11th century England, there was somebody else with a dream. His name was Eilmer of Malmesbury, a Benedictine monk who studied astrology. He had a remarkably similar dream to Musk’s: he dreamt of human flight, having taken the Greek fable of Daedalus and Icarus to be a true story. So Eilmer strapped two makeshift wings to his arms, clambered up to the top of his abbey, and leapt headlong into the shrieking wind, confident that he would soar like an eagle. Is that so very different from Elon Musk (full name Elongated Muskrat) blasting into the abyssal unknown because of his belief that the Star Wars universe really exists? [Citation needed.]

Not really. So what will happen to Musk and his SpaceX project? Eilmer crashed right into the grassy ground, permanently disabling one of his legs, and he never tried it again, probably sensibly. But his spirit lives on. Eilmer of Malmsebury today might seem like a foolish figure, injuring himself because of some misguided belief in the validity of an obvious myth. But is it possible that Eilmer –  a monk, a man of learning – saw beyond the artifice of the Icarus tale and grasped instead the possibilities that lay inside it? After all, just because some fanciful fiction might seem like a leap of faith, doesn’t mean it can’t tell us something that leads us onto greatness. Eilmer didn’t redefine human flight that fateful day, but he demonstrated the courage of his convictions. Today, if you visit Malmesbury, you may see planes, full of humans, soaring overhead, in clear defiance of the limitations of reality. You’ll also see the headquarters of Dyson, one of the most innovative companies in the world. For our money, Eilmer would see both as fitting tributes to his folly, continuations of his innovative spirit.

That spirit also lives on in Musk’s foolish-sounding missions to Mars. Because that’s what innovation is: it’s giant leaps, wild ideas, and stripping the truthful parts out of fictions to figure out what’s going on in the world around us. The difference is, your business doesn’t necessarily want to risk a broken leg and become, as Medieval historian William of Malmsebury describes of Eilmer, “lame ever after.” But taking the leap is vital. Cautiousness and incuriosity can themselves become little different from being “lame ever after.”

The hidden role of the innovation consultancy is, of course, to make sure you get to keep jumping without injuring yourself. To make sure that the conditions are right to ensure the best possible flight through the creative hinterlands. To explore the value of fictions and fantasies without having to fully take the plunge, or at least to make sure that the necessary crash-landings happen in the imagination, not on the cold hard ground.

And that’s the lesson we can take from Eilmer of Malmesbury, even as we scream headlong into the future. Be in control of the conditions you’re leaping into creatively and strategically. Find the tools to monitor the perfect wind-speed.Get the experience to figure out the right type of wings to carry you. Develop the means to assess the grass’s length for a soft landing. Have the insight to predict whether you’re about to fall on your face, or whether you’ll be back up the top of the abbey tomorrow, ready to take that terrifying leap again, a little bolder this time. It’s only through the perfect conditions of diligence, courage and trial-and-error that you can break through to those plains of innovation that are off-limits to the less bold.

[Eilmer] used to relate as the cause of his failure, his forgetting to provide himself a tail. [3] – William of Malmsebury