Innovation leadership from Hugh Iorys Hughes

The sea, beaches and messing about in boats, have been a part of my life since childhood, including a near-miss drowning in Wales when I was ten. I have a fascination with lighthouses too, their perilous location, the history, the bravery and exploits of the keepers.

I am now lucky enough to live really near the sea and one of my favourite things to do is to watch the sunset from Deganwy over to the beach at Conwy and Anglesey, where family holidays as a child remain a clear memory, and the Brookes family originates from.

Part of the Conwy beach is known as ‘The Morfa’ and was the location of the construction of floating Mulberry Harbours, which played a key role in the D-Day landings, of which we recently celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary. It was a local man, Hugh Iorys Hughes, who led the innovation and development of the Mulberrys, used to offload supplies onto the beaches during the Allied ‘Operation Overlord’ on 6 June 1944.

Winston Churchill’s famous memo ‘Piers For Use On Beaches’ of May 1942, issued two years before the D-Day landings to Admiral Mountbatten, sought a solution to the challenge of landing on the beaches: Piers for use on beaches. They must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let me have the best solution worked out. Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.

Hughes was born and educated in Bangor before gaining a First Class Honours degree in engineering at Sheffield University. He was from a family of keen sailors and often raced on the Menai Strait with his father and two brothers. After graduating, he established himself as a civil engineer in London. One of his early works was the design for the dry dock that berthed the Cutty Sark in Greenwich.

In response to Churchill’s request, Hughes sent his idea and drawings to the War Office but his initiative wasn’t taken up until his brother Sior Hughes, a Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, impressed the scheme on a senior colleague and the idea was reconsidered.

In June 1942, Hughes was one of several engineers asked to produce plans for a floating harbour that could be towed to Normandy and installed on the shallow beaches. Hughes worked tirelessly on his vision. Prototypes were built and launched at the estuary of the River Conwy and Irish Sea, which he knew to be suitable from his time sailing along the North Wales coast.

With the initial prototypes a success, in October 1942, construction of three concrete caissons with steel towers (code named ‘Hippo’) and two steel bridging road units (code named ‘Croc’) commenced at the Conwy Morfa. Astonishingly, even with around 1,000 men on site, the work remained secret.

By May 1943, the gigantic constructs were ready and were towed to Garlieston, Scotland for full-scale sea trials, along with other designs. The plan for the Mulberry Harbours was now coming together. In the final decision, the Hippos and Crocs were not used on D-Day, however, part of the final design was taken from Hughes’ Hippos to form the floating pontoons, called Phoenix Caissons, and his Mulberry Harbours were also used.

Disguised as a French fisherman, Hughes made several visits to Normandy to take soundings and record tidal movements. He also developed methods for towing, sinking and anchoring the Caissons, and he helped with installation in June 1944. His role and innovation behind the D-Day project was disclosed to Parliament on 21 December 1944.

The final construction process was one of the biggest civil engineering efforts of the war. It involved 40,000 men constructing 212 caissons, 23 pierheads and ten miles of floating roadway. Two Mulberry harbours, built at Conwy, were towed across the Channel in prefabricated sections and used as breakwaters at Arromanches on the British ‘Gold’ beach, and on the American ‘Omaha’ beach.

At the Nuremberg Trials, Albert Speer, Nazi minister of armaments, was forced to admit that the Germans’ efforts in Northern France had been ‘brought to nothing because of an idea of simple genius’. The makeshift floating harbour was one of the greatest military achievements of all time.

Hughes died in 1977, and his ashes were spread in the Menai Straits. His former family house in Bangor is now part of the University, and has a Blue Plaque in his honour. There is also a plaque to his memory in the museum at Arromanches. A memorial stone and plaque commemorates the work of the people who worked on the Mulberry project on Conwy Morfa.

The Mulberry Harbours were a vital innovation, contributing to the success of the D-Day Landings allowing thousands of tonnes of vehicles and goods to be put ashore in Normandy. Hughes’ invention was an amazing feat, where ingenuity and the need for radical new thinking to face the challenge was needed, a ‘can do’ spirit in the face of adversity.

Today’s innovations are developed in less demanding environments and in response to less troublesome circumstances, with ‘innovation labs’ housing dedicated teams and resources curating new thinking. Hughes’ bold experiments were in a time of real crisis and emergency, but it’s not unusual for innovation to be stimulated in times of hardship.

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw several successful companies that did not delay investment in their future. One was DuPont. In April 1930, Wallace Carothers, a research scientist, recorded the initial discovery of neoprene (synthetic rubber). At the time, DuPont were suffering financially. However, maintaining a long-term view on their strategy, DuPont boosted R&D spending.

Neoprene, which DuPont publicly announced in November 1931 and introduced commercially in 1937, became a major C20th innovation. By 1939, every car and plane manufactured in the United States had neoprene components. Similarly, DuPont discovered nylon in 1934 and introduced it in 1938 after intensive product development.

When Henry Ford’s first Model T rolled off the assembly line, listening to music in the car meant the passengers were singing. At the time, two brothers, Paul and Joseph Galvin, who had started Chicago’s Galvin Manufacturing to sell electric converters for battery-operated radios, needed new revenue after the Wall Street Crash.

By teaming up with William Lear, who owned a radio parts company in the same factory building, and audio engineer Elmer Wavering, they installed the first car radio in May 1930. The next month, Paul drove 800 miles to a radio manufacturers’ convention in Atlantic City. Lacking a booth inside, he parked his car near a pier and cranked up the radio, coaxing attendees to look and listen. Orders began flowing in. In 1933, Ford began offering factory-installed radios from the brothers, and Galvin Manufacturing changed its name to Motorola.

Thus although crises are destructive, they can also have an upside. Economist Joseph Schumpeter emphasised the positive consequences of crises, and that’s because adversity breeds innovation as ‘a mother of necessity’. Facing difficulty is a time when people’s best emerges. Facing adversity has a way of summoning strength and resolve like no other set of circumstances.

In a crisis, startups frequently struggle to find the right balance between caution and optimism. No one knows what will happen next, and it is crazy to operate your business as though you do. But the more volatile the times, the more essential it is to keep your options open. Thus, taking less risk (closing down innovation options) is actually more dangerous than investing to preserve a number of future-focused options.

Creativity loves constraints, so think of an economic downturn or a setback as a ’reset”, spurred by hard times it’s a chance to start over. And it’s not just ‘hard times’ that create these conditions, Seth Godin coined the term ‘Forever Recession’, suggesting that apart from the cyclical recessions that inevitably come and go, we are living in a continuous state of crisis as businesses are challenged by constant disruption and a fast-changing economy, and that can be a very good thing because it forces us to change and adapt faster.

In short, as shown by Hugh Iorys Hughes, crisis can inspire us to be more innovative and productive, so what can we learn from his exploits in developing the floating harbours to take into our C21st business innovation thinking?

Drive the innovation agenda Truly successful innovation efforts start at the top. Startup founders’ vision must continue to drive the innovation agenda during and through any dip in fortunes. Rather than easing back on innovation, a relentless pursuit of the vision energised by the founder is needed to ensure success. Hughes did just that in 1944, leading 1,000 men on the Conwy Morfa in pursuit of a vision that helped change the outcome of the war.

Innovate with purpose When facing a crisis, startups need to prioritise their investment in a way that moves beyond just profitability and centres on its core purpose. Simon Sinek’s classis ‘What is your why?’ comes to mind here, having a sense of purpose and aspiration beyond your day-to-day commercial mission makes a company more innovative and more able to disrupt or respond to disruption.

Be ruthless in prioritising Hughes had a clear focus and had to be strategic, whilst also experimenting to build and test a series of prototypes. When resources are scarce, avoid ‘walking dead’ projects and be ruthless when it comes to making decisions on when to pull the plug.

Hughes would have been asking key questions such as How much risk remains? What’s the time needed to get to the next stage? What is the true cost of the next round of tests and what learning will they provide?

Startup innovation isn’t just about creativity and generating new ideas, it’s about aligning innovation with strategy. Avoid the temptation to prioritise short-term efforts that promise immediate payback over longer-term efforts with more questionable returns. Potential rather than performance alone is the right guide for innovation decisions.

Focus on ‘adjacency innovation’ In a crisis, operating with finite resource and under time pressure to deliver an outcome, business leaders must figure out how to do more with less. Rather than make big bets on a single, radical innovation, consider allocating resources to ‘adjacency innovations’, which can be less risky but still generate good pay-offs. Hughes did this on the Morfa, exploring three potential floating harbour designs simultaneously.

Be bold Make sure your innovation strategy includes building and testing scenarios that elicit unstated and as-yet-unrecognised potential in the near and long term. Use the insights for learning. In short, make sure you are a problem solver in tough times – which is exactly what Hughes was.

Hughes showed that innovation thrives when faced with no other choice, proving that necessity truly is the mother of innovation. When faced with challenges, it’s human nature to want to hunker down and just protect the nest. But instead, strike out with vigour, audacious thinking and be intrepid.

Today is the age of rapid technology-led disruption, but it’s only just kicking in, and as a result, ‘crisis’ will become a more common occurrence for organisations.  It’s essential that innovation leaders respond positively and are more flexible, responsive and socially oriented.

Some may view this is an insurmountable challenge, but I see it as an opportunity to take a lesson from the heart and mind of Hugh Iorys Hughes. Be an emboldened innovation thinker, and make your mark where and when it’s needed most.

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