In 1943, an RAF surveillance aircraft photographed a German army/air-force base at Peenemunde.
There were some suspicious shapes in the pictures but the chief British scientific brains couldn’t agree on what they were.
Professor R.V.Jones thought they were a weapon no one had seen before, a rocket.
But Professor Lindemann disagreed, he thought a rocket was impossible.
The problem was, if these really were photographs of a new ‘wonder weapon’ then Peenemunde would have to be destroyed.
It would take the majority of RAF bomber force which was a gigantic risk.
The only person who could take a decision that big was the Prime Minister.
So a meeting of the War Cabinet was called for each side to put their case to Churchill.
In favour of bombing was Duncan Sandys, who was in charge of armaments production.
Against bombing was Professor Lindemann, Churchill’s chief scientific advisor.
The unstated agenda that drove the meeting was that Lindemann hated Sandys.
He saw him as a bureaucrat who wasn’t entitled to an opinion on scientific matters, so whatever position Sandys took, Lindemann took the opposite.
Sandys told Churchill that he was convinced the photographs were of some sort of rocket.
Lindemann said that was nonsense, the only way to propel a rocket was by using solid fuel (i.e., cordite) which burns at an incredibly high temperature, this would need a steel case so thick it would weigh between 60 and 100 tons, which was impossible to lift.
Sandys said, just because Lindemann didn’t know how to build a rocket like that didn’t mean the Germans didn’t know how.
Lindemann ignored that and looked at the photographs, he said that anyway the large shape was probably just a barrage-balloon, used for defence against aircraft.
Sandys said it was resting on a 30-ton trailer, why would a lighter-than-air balloon need a 30-ton trailer?
Lindemann then said it was long and thin which meant it was most likely a torpedo.
Sandys said it was 40 feet long, which meant it must weigh around 40 tons.
The Germans didn’t have an aircraft that could lift a 40-ton torpedo or a U-boat that could carry one.
As Professor Jones watched the discussion back and forth he had mixed emotions: laughter and terror.
The ridiculous sight of Churchill’s chief scientific advisor reduced to making schoolboy arguments, saying anything to discredit Sandys, while at the same time the lives of tens of thousands of people hung in the balance.
This was actually a battle between ego and reason, between emotion and logic.
Pretty much all of the bad decisions in history can be traced back to this basic conflict.
But the most interesting remark for me was when Duncan Sandys said to Lindemann:
“Just because you don’t know how to build a rocket like that doesn’t mean the Germans don’t.”
Some people judge all new ideas by the rules and conventions they’ve learned.
And they use those existing conventions to discredit new and different thinking, which is like trying to drive a car with the hand-brake on.
Clients, ECDs, planners turning down unconventional work is one example of this.
But awards can often be just a way of rewarding conventional thinking.
Vinny Warren wrote the Budweiser “Wassup?” campaign that won every award there is.
He was once asked whether he thought awards had become too conventional.
He said, “I want to be doing work they don’t even have awards for yet.”
Orson Wells once said something similar:
“Don’t give them what they want.
Give them what they never dreamed was possible.”