Stealth technology provides the U.S. military with a dramatic competitive advantage in battle and as a deterrent to potential aggressors. Yet, its development nearly didn’t happen. The mathematical theories upon which stealth technology is based were actually developed by a Soviet scientist whose superiors were absolutely uninterested in his “crazy” theories and confusing equations. His frustration with his superiors led the scientist to publish a paper in a scientific journal. Here’s an example of a stealth equation for the strength of the reflected radar signal:
A Lockheed engineer in the course of keeping current discovered the Soviet Scientist’s article and believed that his Soviet counterpart was on to something. He approached his management and received a small budget and team to explore the possibilities and was set up in the Skunk Works operation at Lockheed. He led a team that developed the original stealth fighter. After building the initial prototype, he and his team invited some senior Lockheed engineers to review their work and provide feedback. The senior engineers were used to building speedy fighters with smooth, space age contours versus the strange looking, flat paneled surfaces called for in stealth theory. Many of these senior engineers doubted that the plane would even get off the ground.
Undaunted, the Skunk Works team continued their work and completed the prototype. By this time, they were nearly out of money and they had no orders yet for stealth fighters. They realized that they needed a straightforward method to demonstrate their value proposition. A radar scientist was brought in to perform some testing that involved gluing ball bearings to the nose of the prototype and zapping it with the radar gun. This revealed that the plane’s electronic radar profile was equal to that of a 1/8” ball bearing, about this size:
Over the next few months, the sales effort constituted rolling these small ball bearings across the desks of USAF generals. These brief and to-the-point sales presentations were accompanied by one simple question, “What if this was your fighter’s profile on enemy radar?” This technique led to billions of dollars and several generations of stealth aircraft sales to the U.S. Military.
There are many lessons to be learned from this story:
- Research the external environment – the foundations of stealth technology were discovered in an obscure technical paper published by a “competitor”
- Trust your instincts – “we’ve always done it this way” mentality nearly grounded stealth technology
- Marketing messaging should be simple – while stealth technology is complex (theories and equations), its value proposition (radar profile of ball bearing) is not
- Engage and sell the value proposition to those who can buy it – the USAF generals had all read and been influenced by Sun Tzu’s Art of War and sought “silver bullets” like strategic advantage and deterrence, not technical theories
In this case, the go-to-market team collaborated to research, develop, market and sell their new offer. The rest is history.