Pilgrim Innovation

Pilgrim InnovationThe phrase “Pilgrim Innovation” could appear in the dictionary as an example of the word “oxymoron,” which is defined as two contradictory terms placed next to each other in a single phrase.  After all, Pilgrims are often seen as relics of a bygone era, known more for their large, shiny belt buckles, funny hats, and quaint ways than for delivering new thinking and ideas.  Yet as many of us take time off this week of Thanksgiving in the United States, a brief investigation of some of the events in the story of how the Pilgrims came to America yields lessons for the modern-day innovation practitioner.

Nearly every student in America can recite the story of how the Pilgrims arrived at the tip of what is now known as Cape Cod on board the three-masted sailing ship known as the Mayflower.  Less is known, however, about the second ship that the Pilgrims originally planned to take on their voyage, the Speedwell.  Facing a long, dangerous voyage across the Atlantic to a largely unknown destination, the average passenger would probably have chosen to go on board the Speedwell, figuring that any ship with “speed” in its name would likely make the 3,000-mile journey in a shorter period of time.

The name Mayflower, on the other hand, invokes thoughts of slowly walking through a field of spring flowers, daisies perhaps, and connotes a softness and delicateness that seems counter to the idea of survival across a brutal ocean passage.  As history instructs us, the Speedwell proved to be unseaworthy and returned to port, with a smaller group of Pilgrims making a successful journey on the Mayflower.

The lesson for the innovation practitioner is to avoid falling into the trap of always trying to name an innovation or transformation initiative after a positive term tied to its potential outcome.  This can apply to any big IT initiative named after a given year, such as “CRM Transformation 2014” or “Customer Master Data Integration 2015.”  Tying the name of a project too closely to its objective, while at first seeming like an obvious thing to do, can sometimes imperil the success of the project because too much focus is placed on that very precise target and not enough on other aspects of the overall project.

I noticed a possible example of this on a recent visit to a hospital room.  In the corner of the room was a large sticker in the outline of a chair and a similarly-colored folding chair.  The program was called the “Share Chair” [I am disguising the actual name so as not to offend its creators] and I discerned the intent of the program to be a means of encouraging Physicians and Nurses to spend more time at the bedside of patients to improve their interactions with patients and give the patient time to ask questions and not feel rushed.

Since sitting on the bed itself is not a good idea because of tubes and germs and various other issues, having a lightweight, portable chair nearby for the staff to use seemed like a great, innovative idea. However, I asked around and couldn’t find any examples of staff using the chair.  Indeed, during my time in the room the Nurses would always stand up during their visits and the Doctor would sit on the corner of the bed if he sat at all.

While my case study only had a sample size of one, my guess would be that the same phenomenon was happening in other rooms and I lamented the fact that somewhere there was an innovation team that came up with a great idea but their solution was not being used in practice.  This led me to wonder whether a different name for the program could have yielded different results.  Was the name chosen by the team, for lack of a better term, too “cute” and did it trivialize the project?  Was there a better way to encourage more staff/patient interactions?  For the innovator, these are items we should consider when we reach the stage where one of our ideas makes that wonderful step from concept to real implementation.

Another innovation lesson from the Pilgrims stems from the composition of the passengers aboard the Mayflower.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, these passengers were not all motivated by a desire for religious freedom.  According to Beth Dunn, the former Director of Technology and Communications for the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod, around half were indeed Separatists, while the remaining individuals were either somewhat sympathetic to the Separatist cause or completely disconnected from the cause and brought along as workers with specialized skills, such as soldiers and craftsmen.

For example, one of the eventual leaders of the Pilgrim community, John Alden, was brought along to make and repair barrels.  Myles Standish, a well-known leader of the Plymouth settlement, was originally part of the security detail for the voyage.  The lesson here for innovators is that not everyone engaged in a successful mission needs to be completely bought into the vision that is motivating the leaders of the endeavor.  Some can be brought along for other purposes, and as long as they are generally supportive of the effort, their specific skills can be leveraged to lead to a successful outcome.

Consider, for instance, the case of William Francis Gibbs, the naval architect who designed the S.S. United States, one of the greatest transatlantic passenger liners of the era before jet travel.  Gibbs was messianic in his devotion to the cause of ship design and manufacturing.  From the time he was a little boy, he sketched designs for ships and knew that his life’s ambition was to build the greatest, fastest ships in the world.  Gibbs accomplished this with the creation of the S.S. United States, which won the famous Blue Riband award for setting a speed record in crossing the Atlantic ocean faster than the previous champion, the Cunard Lines Queen Mary.

Despite his obsessive attention to details, Gibbs has made a mistake in his original design for the ship. The twin smokestacks on the S.S. United States were the largest ever installed on a passenger ship, measuring 55 feet tall and 60 feet across at the base.  Gibbs designed a set of soot-deflecting fins at the top of the teardrop-shaped funnels that provided a signature for his design and leveraged some of his past, well-received work as a naval architect.

Prior to construction, Gibbs initiated thorough scale-model testing of nearly every element on the ship, including his beloved fins.  Unfortunately, this setup proved deficient in wind testing, raising the concern that soot and ash from the smokestack would fall on passengers on the upper decks of the ship.  The solution to the problem came from a young Newport News shipyard apprentice, Howard E. Lee, Jr., who recommended to Gibbs that he rotate the fins to where they were horizontal rather than vertical.  Gibbs was skeptical that so simple a solution would work, and he may also have been concerned about changing his signature design, but he reluctantly agreed to allow Lee to test his idea.  The new design worked well and, according to Lee, upon seeing the results Gibbs “grunted and walked away without comment.”

The new horizontal fin design made it into the final blueprints for the ship and can be seen on the ship to this day (though the ship itself is in limbo in a Philadelphia-area port while it awaits its ultimate fate).  We do not know whether shipyard apprentice Howard Lee shared Gibbs’s zeal for creating the greatest ocean liner in the world.  For all we know, that individual was just happy to have a steady job and spent most of his day taking the innovative ideas of others and turning them into parts for ships.  However, his contribution to the S.S. United States proved to be lasting and valuable.

A final example of Pilgrim Innovation is recounted in Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction.  Philbrick describes a process whereby the ship’s Master Christopher Jones sometimes was faced with such intense seas that he had to engage in a radical maneuver to protect the ship and its passengers even though the move meant that he lost many of the miles he had successfully traversed.  The procedure was known as the “lie ahull” and consisted of furling the sails and securing the helm to the leeward side (downwind) and allowing the wind and seas to push the ship where they pleased.

Philbrick notes that in 1957, a British team sailing a replica of the Mayflower experienced what it must have been like for the crew in the 1600s facing powerful Western gales in the Atlantic.  Near the end of the voyage, in the midst of a powerful storm, the captain of the 1957 version of the Mayflower recognized that the severe motion of the ship under sail was reaching a breaking point so he ordered the crew to engage in the “lie ahull” configuration.  He removed the sails, tied down all items on the deck, and, with hesitation, turned the helm to leeward.  The crew was astonished to find that the ship responded perfectly to the change.  Philbrick describes the scene as follows:

[a]s soon as the ship’s bow swung into the wind, a remarkable change came over the Mayflower II.  Even though she was under bare poles in a howling gale, her slablike topsides functioned as a kind of wooden storm sail, magically steadying the shop’s motion.  Almost perfectly balanced, the Mayflower II sat like a contented duck amid the uproar of the storm.  After being pounded unmercifully by the waves, the ship was finally at peace.

Although modern ship designers are unlikely to model their ships after the Mayflower, it is intriguing to see how the Pilgrims leveraged an innovative ship design to ensure their survival in the rough seas of the Atlantic.  Moreover, the “lie ahull” maneuver also reminds us of the familiar notion that sometimes we have to go backwards in the face of a gale of resistance in order to make progress and succeed in our mission in the long run.




Steven Ujifusa, A Man and His Ship: America’s Greatest Naval Architect and His Quest to Build the S.S. United States (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), p. 239.

Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 31-32.

image credit: needham.k12.ma.us

BETA - Global Innovation Management Institute certification

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:

Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




Changing Relationship Between Electric Vehicles and Power Grid

By Braden Kelley | October 13, 2021

Recently Ford announced an electric truck for the masses, the Ford F-150 Lightning, with up to 300 miles of range…

Read More

Four Traits Your Next CEO Must Have For Your Organization to Thrive

By Anthony Mills | October 13, 2021

CEOs come and CEOs go.  Some – like Steve Jobs at Apple, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, and Richard Branson at…

Read More

Leave a Comment