Back to Insights


Lessons for digital transformation: The Russians used a pencil

I recently had the opportunity to speak at a large digital transformation conference in London. I spent a good while wondering what to cover- the digital transformation and technology landscape is vast to say the least! I remembered reading a story a few years ago about NASA spending millions of dollars to develop a pen that would write in space, whereas the Soviet cosmonauts just used a pencil and it got me thinking- this story resonates with many companies who are trying to transform and keep up digitally.

As the story goes, during the height of the space race in the 1960’S, NASA realised that pens could not function in space. This was a problem as the astronauts needed to record information and write things down so NASA subsequently spent years and millions of taxpayers dollars to develop a pen that could write in zero gravity. However, the crafty Soviets simply handed their cosmonauts a pencil.

Originally, NASA (like the Soviets) both used pencils in space and in 1965 NASA ordered 34 special mechanical pencils at a total price of $4,382.50. When this was announced publicly, there was an outcry and NASA scrambled to come up with a cheaper alternative for their astronauts to use.

The problems with pencils in space

What ended up happening was that both the Americans and Russians did not take into consideration the effects of using a pencil in space. It was soon apparent that the pencils tips would flake and break off, essentially drifting into microgravity where they could potentially cause serious harm to astronauts or their equipment. The Soviets them came up with an idea of a “grease pencil” which don’t have any breakage problems. The problem was with a grease pencil is that it’s imprecise and smudgy. The peeled away part from the grease pencil also created waste.

Worse still, all pencils are flammable - a quality NASA wanted to avoid in onboard objects following the Apollo 1 fire.

The "anti-gravity" space pen

Eventually in 1965, engineer Paul Fisher patented a new pen “anti gravity” space pen. The pen features a set of technological improvements. The biggest improvement was the pens ink capsule - pressurised nitrogen forced the ink to flow, enabling the pen to work upside down, in zero gravity, in pressurised environments and even under water. Fisher also included a precision roller ball on tungsten carbide, positioned to prevent leakage and the metal it was Ade with had a flashpoint of 200 degrees - enough to meet NASA’s strict flammability requirements.

How does this relate to digital transformation?

So what does this all mean? And how does it related to digital transformation? Essentially it comes down to a few different things: 1. A failure of common sense and bureaucracy 2. No in depth understanding of the problem or what you’re trying to solve 3. No thinking of the overall picture but instead a particular focus on one problem 4. Simplicity vs. Complexity As an agency, we’ve built up a wealth of experience helping our clients to build bespoke applications and fuel their digital transformation efforts. Though observation, we see the same things time and time again.

Overall, organisations generally aren’t thinking bigger picture. Building a new app or system is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to digital transformation - it needs to fit into the wider business strategy which includes people, process and technology.

Some of the most common things we see

1. Don’t replicate process - change it!

If your process is inherently broken, slow and burdensome or simply not optimised, transferring that process onto a computer, tablet or mobile device will not solve your problem. That is not “digital transformation”. Organisations need to be open to redefining and changing their processes in a way that will benefit the business and the bottom line. This means taking a critical look at how things are currently done and identifying gaps or opportunities within these processes. Then technology can be introduced to best help you change the way things are done. This can help you get things done faster, help save you money, prevent employee frustration and provide the best possible experience for your customers and/ or employees.

2. Lack of understanding & badly defined briefs

We often see clients (and consultants) come to us with pre-conceived digital solutions that either don’t address the underlying issue, are impractical and/ or not technically viable. Even if the solution is technically viable, there’s a lack of understanding of the cost they would incur to build it. When companies approach software developers, more often than not this pre conceived solution isn’t correct. The correct people have not been involved in identifying the underlying issues and the right people have not been engaged to determine what is both technically and financially viable for the business.

If the solution isn’t well thought out or defined, you can waste a hell of a lot of time, resource and money on an app that does not provide any real business benefit or value. A part of our app development process, arguably the most important stage is letting us help you define your process, challenge and what your vision is. Many clients come to us who know that “they need to change something but don’t know how or what” or what is technically viable. We map out your existing processes and can help you identify opportunities and challenges that can be addressed digitally. We spend time with our clients on site observing how the “as is” process works then work with you to help you accurately define your brief for design and development.

3. Digital still regarded as “other” 

The constraints of legacy systems, growing regulatory pressures and more means that many companies are developing solutions that “plasters over” the main issues instead of addressing the root cause. I like the rotting warehouse analogy for this one- if your companies technology is like a rotting warehouse - old, damaged, inefficient with complex layers of dependencies - you wouldn’t continue to try and cover it up with shabby bits of plastic and plug the leaks. You’d probably try and start again. Digital is still being regarded as "other” in this context instead of a main driving factor behind the growth and success of a business.

Digital transformation should be considered in it's entirety

Relating back to the space pen analogy, digital transformation should be considered in its entirety. Building shiny new things or looking for quick fixes to plaster over inefficiencies will not help. Businesses need to think about value first and foremost. They need to be willing to look at existing processes with a bit of common sense and try to understand how to change or optimise it. It's so important to learn from past mistakes and to ensure we don't keep replicating existing processes in a new environment. If you do, you will simply be a pencil sharpener in space.

Need a partner in your digital transformation project? Get in touch, we'd love to help.