Innovation is often referred to as the quest for the Holy Grail. R&D departments of small and large companies around the world are looking for it at any time. But many brave people before have done so.
This is the story of a young knight who set out to free maidens and conquer the world. On a bright Tuesday morning in spring he was riding across the landscape in search for an adventure. His shiny armor not only reflected the sunlight, but also his spirit eager to explore the world. He had been riding leisurely across meadows and forests when he approached a river. On the board of that river there was a camp of fellow knights. Their horses were feeding on the river bank’s grass, the knights were drinking or playing joyfully, their armor well stored in their tents.
The young knight approached one of the elderly knights and asked what they were waiting for in the camp.
“Nothing, sire, we are performing our duty to guard the Holy Grail”.
The knight was impressed. He had only heard the tales and stories around the grail, and the glorious knights and their adventures in search of it.
“The holy grail? THE Holy Grail?”
“Oh yes, sire, the one and only Holy Grail.”
The knight wondered. None of the knights in the camp looked like the glorious knights in the stories. They looked more like a group of campers on a fishing trip.
“But where is it, Sir, the Holy Grail?”
The elderly knight nodded in the direction of the river.
“Over there, do you see that chapel on the other side of the river? There it is!”
“But why don’t you guard it more closely? Someone can easily walk up to the chapel and steal it?”
“It hasn’t been stolen so far, has it? And there is more sun on this bank, and the grass for our horses is greener here, and the forest is full of deer and other tasty animals. It’s perfectly suitable to guard it from here. But if you wish to be the hero of our time, guard it from the chapel door so no villain can ever enter it, feel free, do so if you please, I shall not hinder you, sire.”
The young knight was puzzled. The Holy Grail so close, and none of the knights wanted to reach it. The effort to cross the river seemed low, the joy of holding the Holy Grail in his hands incredible, the praise for being the Guardian of the Holy Grail would be beyond anything he could have imagined. Those thoughts led him to approach the river and guide his horse across it.
The other knights had observed the short exchange, and were interrupting their games to watch the jolly young rider to behold the Holy Grail, all smiling in foresight.
The water was shallow, the river was not carrying a lot of water, it looked easier with every step. But halfway into the water, the young knight realized that the river was not a quietly flowing water, but a swamp. His horse sank deeper and deeper, it was clear that a few more steps and they would both sink under the heavy armor.
Despite the looks of all the knights, he slowly maneuvered his horse backward, getting on safer grounds, and finally turning around.
“Well, young man”, said the elderly knight, “what is it with the conquest of the Grail?”
“Well, you see, I have traveled so far, and my horse is tired, and I am hungry, I think I need to rest a little before that conquest. After all, this is a holy deed, and thou shallst perform such a conquest only well rested and spiritually prepared.”
The other knights smiled, and turned back to their drinks and games. He descended from his horse, took off his armor, and accepted the invitation from one of the other knights before resting in his own tent. The days passed, the wine was good, the food ample, and life on the river bank was joyful. He found the Holy Grail well guarded from this side of the river, after all, none of the knights had managed to cross the swamp. And the grass was indeed greener on this side, after all, this was better for his horse too.
One day, a young knight in shiny armor crossed the forest and arrived in the knights’ camp. He too was excited, he too rode his horse into the river, he too realized it was a swamp, and the camp welcomed the new colleague.
I have told this story several young colleagues who joined our multinational multi-division company. They all found it funny, but more than one told me later: “That story about the knight, you remember? You were right, this is how I felt.”
There is a sequel to the story I had not told:
One morning, a peasant girl walked through the camp. She was selling fruit and vegetables to the knight, and cheered and chatted with them. She also asked what they were doing, and they told her about the Grail. She smiled. “If all of you are staying here to guard that ‘Holy Grail’ thing, it must be very precious and beautiful?”
“It is the most precious thing on earth!”
She thanked them for the few coins they gave her for her product, and walked away.
Later that afternoon, someone shouted through the camp. “The girl again!”
They all looked around, but was nowhere to be seen in the camp. And then they saw her: on the other side of the river, approaching the chapel.
“Hey, how did you get over there?” they all shouted in awe.
She turned around and smiled: “Oh, it’s quite easy to cross the river further up, where it descends from the mountains. It’s narrow, and there are stones across.”
She approached the chapel and entered the unlocked door.
But as Friedrich Dürrenmatt says in “The Physicists”: A story is not finished, until it has taken the worst turn possible. So the knights jumped on their horses, chased upstream towards the mountains, found the passage where the river could be crossed, and raced towards the chapel. They grabbed the girl in the chapel, killed her, and from then on fought endless wars to behold the Holy Grail.
How does this little story relate to innovation? Reach out to discuss!