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The Haystack Observatory

ILab Notes
A radar unit for finding the right problems and solutions

The Original Haystack Observatory was founded in 1970 and occupies 1,300 acres of hilly woodlands in the towns of Groton, Tyngsborough, and Westford, about 40 miles northwest of the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A group of 100 scientists, engineers and technical personnel conducts the Observatory's research programs and operations.

The World is a haystack of problem-solution fits with a few needles in it. Building your own Haystack Observatory will increase the possibility of discovering those needles.

 If your organisation spends all its time looking for interesting trends and technology or all its time chasing existing and potential customers, you will miss out on most opportunities. If you do neither, same result. A balanced and integrated approach is the best way to navigate the infinite pool of problem-solution fits available.

Any innovation effort - big or small - aims to put good ideas to use. There are two ways to do this.

Top Down Innovation: You define a relevant problem and look for technologies that can solve it.

Bottom Up Innovation: You explore technologies and digital platforms and then search for relevant problems they can solve.


In larger organisations Top Down and Bottom Up Innovation should be weighed meticulously against each other. Our experience with designing innovation programs has shown that the difference between the two approaches is not fully understood, that the two ways are rarely combined in a structured format and are often competing for the same resources.


Top Down vs Bottom up Innovation at the Haystack Observatory

Most organisations today claim to be user-centric when doing innovation. In reality, few are organised around the user and rarely deliver what the user truly needs at the right time. Thus, a deep understanding of user needs combined with perfectly timed and scalable technology should be the purpose of any innovation effort.  


Defining the right problems and then look for technology, i.e. top down innovation, takes place at the top of the Haystack Observatory where a desire to seek what can’t be formulated guides the time spent gazing at the World (and occasionally outer space). People working at the top of the Haystack Observatory should keep asking why something happens (at least 5 times) in an aggressively non-judicial way to uncover hidden truths or needs. Subsequently focus on what the impact of fulfilling this need might be rather than jumping straight into problem-solving mode. Ultimately, this part of the haystack observatory will align on which problems are the most important ones to solve rather dictating directions or solutions. If you don’t know where to start, pick and combine one element from each of the four levels of the value pyramid below and describe how this would be perceived in user terms.


...or follow the advice of Baudelaire: “Review and scrutinize whatever is natural; and you will find nothing but frightfulness.


At the bottom up end of the haystack observatory, preferably the basement, time is spent understanding technology that is already democratised and initially indistinguishable from magic (e.g. AR/VR, drones, AI etc.). Bottom up Haystack Observers care less about Hype Curves and Gartner Quadrants and more about exploring technology to the point where it stops being surprising.


“A World in which anything is possible is also one in which nothing is very surprising.”

Beyond exploring technology, Bottom up Haystack Observers also test digital platforms that successfully enable either Sarnoff, Metcalfe or Reed’s laws:


Again if you don’t know where to start, let the technology choices be defined initially by Funktionslust: the pleasure of doing what one knows how to do well. Or look to Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, Berlin or Paris for much the same reason the famous bank robber Willie Sutton robbed banks: “That’s where the money is”.


At Innovation Lab we seek out insights on technology and trends across these ecosystems - often acting as the bottom up Haystack Observatory of our clients. We then sprint to find the needles by prototyping and testing solutions that match unmet needs.

The Haystack Observatory has one general purpose: to combine the best from the top down and bottom up efforts by hosting the equivalent of IDEO and Google X under one roof.

How to set up a Haystack Observatory

What is needed: A physical place where Haystack Observers meet to share user insights and technology perspectives. Ideally, somewhere close to real users in order to build and iterate rapidly. Both Top Down and Bottom Up Haystack Observers should be non-conformist generalized specialists with a high degree of fluid intelligence, i.e. “the capacity to reason and solve novel problems, independent of any knowledge from the past”. Fluid intelligence wears off around the mid 20’s unless it is trained. So if your company lacks fluid intelligence, invite or hire people that have it on a quid-pro-quo. Quid being their time and most creative powers, quo being food and access to resources and interesting people and challenges. The Haystack Observatory has its own drumbeat, i.e. a time schedule designed for Top Down and Bottom Up Observers to meet with the sole purpose of combining insights with technology until a needle is found. When a needle is found, Haystack Teams will deliberately start doing the right thing badly and then better. Haystack Needles are built much the same way crusades were planned by justifying the cause (“Why is this so important”), followed by propaganda (“Tell the World”), recruitment (“Get team members on board”), finance (“What is needed”) and logistics (“Plan”). Not the other way around!

The Haystack Observatory should also host in-house innovation sprints and open hackathon-style competitions and facilitate Beers’n’Demos to spread the word on insights and projects. On rare occasions, middle and top management are allowed to bring strategic issues into the Haystack Observatory.

To sum up:

  • Balance top down and bottom up innovation initiatives
  • Host both under one roof close to users.
  • Invite/hire people with fluid intelligence
  • Use agile innovation formats for combining user insights and technology


If you are considering strategic innovation initiatives and want to know more about weighing top down and bottom up innovation efforts or plan to build a Haystack Observatory, please contact Anders Sahl Hansen.