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The Dreamliner and the Risks of Transformative Innovation

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In October of 2011 Boeing launched a new plane, said to be the most innovative new aircraft in the commercial space in decades.  Airlines were lining up to order their own, with Japanese airline ANA waiting over 3 years for its first craft to be delivered. Customers paid up to $30,000 per seat to take a ride in the new plane that had the entire industry and traveling world abuzz. The plane offered huge improvements in energy efficiency, was made from a variety of high tech composite materials, and included a wide-spectrum of high-end consumer features like increased space, reduced noise, modular bathrooms, and even a LED light show during preparation for take-off. It seemed like a huge leap for Boeing and the aircraft industry.

The Dreamliner 787 was meant to herald a new age of commercial aviation. Instead it has Boeing scrambling.
The Dreamliner 787 was meant to herald a new age of commercial aviation. Instead it has Boeing scrambling.

However in the time since, Boeing has been dogged with problems: Cockpit windows have cracked multiple times, now three active Dreamliners have had overheating problems related to their lithium ion batteries, and two planes have had fuel leak problems. Given that only 50 Dreamliners are in service (with hundreds more on delayed order) these are potentially scary indications that the entire plane design may need to be reconsidered. The issue has even led US investment bank Goldman to downgrade Boeing stock from “conviction buy” to “buy” while the issues are reviewed by the FAA.

The question that has to be on the mind of many Boeing executives is whether the Dreamliner was too big of a risk – to big of a redesign and innovation – to have been taken in the first place; particularly in an industry with such high regulatory and consumer scrutiny.

But has the Dreamliner really failed? Or is it simply experiencing the rocky beginning that many transformational innovations go through? What does this case say about the relative merits of the first-mover advantage versus being a fast-follower? Let’s consider the details and the impact the Dreamliner has had on its:

–         Industry/competitors: the airline manufacturing industry is particularly competitive, with high levels of capital required. In fact, two major western companies now dominate the consumer and military industry, with Boeing and Airbus fighting for market share. Airbus is set to launch their own next generation craft next year – it too relies on the same type of batteries found to cause issues for Boeing. Boeing has the first-mover advantage in that they’ve defined the next stage of technical development and can capture the early market – whatever features Airbus shows in the A350 will almost certainly have been inspired by the 787. Airbus however has the fast-follower advantage: the chance to quickly adapt its competitor’s technology while making necessary improvements to have an even better product at launch.

–         Market: the airline industry is intensely competitive, with any opportunity to gain consumer share coveted. The Dreamliner captured the imagination of the commercial airline industry, with airlines queued up to place orders to not only gain an edge against their competition but also to keep up. The Dreamliner has been a success, but it is vulnerable to being displaced by its competition based on the difficulties relating to safety. Unfortunately, in the airline industry almost any issue quickly escalates to a safety concern. No amount of internal testing can replace use in the field, so these ‘teething’ problems are almost inevitable in such an innovation. Only time will tell if these are early indications of incomplete qualification of designs and innovation or just minor bugs that needed to be worked out.

–         Consumers: the Dreamliner did something no plane has done for decades – it captured the enthusiasm and interest of the flying public. Boeing was able to become synonymous with innovation in the industry. This interest almost certainly contributed to the early success in selling the plane within the airline market. Boeing now has the challenge of resolving safety issues in a way that assures the consumer of the concern for safety. This means solving the quickly and completely. Another instance of having the plane grounded might be permanently disastrous for the Dreamliner and Boeing brand in the eyes of consumers, especially related to new innovations.

Transformative Implications BoxThat the launch of a transformative new airliner design will meet with some growing pains should have been no surprise to Boeing executives. With any innovation there is a level of risk involved in introducing it to the market – whether that be market acceptance, technical success, or speed of adoption (among other factors). The bigger question is whether Boeing understood the risks before launch and fully evaluated the upside versus the potential downside of making such a transformational leap. The Poole College of Management provides a great discussion on ‘Managing Levels of Innovation Risk’ on its Enterprise Risk Management page. For the executive or innovation leader it is very important to understand the organizational needs – for real breakthrough growth or to capture a new market segment transformation innovation can be a necessity. However, it may be enough to make more sustainable, low risk incremental innovations in order to obtain the same gains.

To the Osmotic Innovator, the warning is to be certain of the organizational goals in relation to an innovation initiative. While transformational innovations are exciting and capture the imagination both internally and externally they also carry a very high risk profile and can do long term damage to a brand and a company that undertakes them. There is a case to be made that in some cases incremental or core innovations can represent a more easily digestible risk profile.

So where does Boeing net-out? Boeing, hopefully, made the evaluation that its position required or allowed it to take a gamble on a transformational innovation. Rather than suffering the innovators dilemma and being outpaced by other firms it would disrupt its own business and take the risk necessary to do so. While being first-mover allowed them to capture a potentially huge share of the market for the Dreamliners benefits (high efficiency longer-range medium sized planes with enhanced consumer experience) and set the industry standard, technical and supply problems have given its competitor a chance to both learn and catch-up, potentially offering a better comparable product when they do launch. Boeings willingness to work with regulators to make its system safe speaks well to regulatory agencies, airlines, and travelers; but it is inherent that these changes are made quickly to repair the damage to the brand and fend off otherwise equivalent competitor offerings.

The future success of the Dreamliner and its place in history (as either a transformational innovation or a failed early stage technical innovation bested by the fast-followers) will rest on Boeings willingness to dedicate resources to solving its problems quickly and efficiently and on the ability of its competitors to leverage these first-mover difficulties to their advantage.

Observing the Innovators Dilemma

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In 1997 Clayton Christensen published The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.  The book (which we highly recommend) proposed an intriguing explanation as to why large companies with seemingly unlimited resources can fail to see their own demise in the emergence of disruptive technologies.  One oft cited example of this phenomenon is the demise of Kodak who not only failed to see the importance of digital photography on their core film business but in fact were the ones who invented digital photography in the first place.  The purpose of this post is not to discuss Christensen’s work however but instead to cast our eyes over some industries and see if we can spot companies who might well be in the midst of an innovators dilemma as we type.

In order to identify where an innovators dilemma might lie we need to quickly describe the required conditions for its occurrence.  A very common approach, and one used by Christensen, is to describe the situation using innovation S-curves as below.

A:  A new technology in its infancy.  Performance improvements are hard to generate as the innovation is becoming understood.  Generally, innovations at this point are only used by very early adopters and the value of the product offering may be limited.  B:  Rates of performance advances are peaking, rapidly catching up to incumbent technology. The technology becomes commonplace and even the industry standard.  New competitor technologies look hobbyist or misaligned.  C:  The technology matures, performance advances are harder to generate as the limitations of the technology are found.  Most people who might use the technology are doing so.  New competitor technologies seem to have higher potential and are gaining acceptance.  D:  The technology fades.  People stop using the technology and choose others.  A new technology becomes the industry standard.  The Dilemma Zone:  Technology A is well understood, the industry standard and an integral part of the business model of those employing it.  The profitability of the technology is peaking.  Technology B looks very promising even to the point where it is the odds on favorite to be the future of the industry; the only question is exactly when.

So, with this set of conditions in mind we will go hunting for some modern dilemmas in the businesses of today.  Kodak followed the red S curve to their well-publicized regret, who might be next?

Dilemma #1, HBO:  HBO are having a great run at the moment, their internally created content such as Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire have generated huge returns for their parent company Time Warner.  HBO is one of the most well known and entrenched premium cable channels in the world and its exclusive offerings are an important part of the business model of cable providers such as Verizon and DirecTV.  So where is the dilemma? Well, Game of Thrones Season II has been downloaded illegally about 25 million times over the year1 and HBO know why; there is no other way to get it apart from subscribing to a full cable service.  HBO could provide downloads through their own site or through iTunes or another vendor but (at least for season 2) chose to take the money i.e. maintained the high premiums from the cable providers at the expense of the pirated copies.  Financially this makes sense today but long term HBO may not always have such a gem as Game of Thrones with which to negotiate (or even define) the process of streaming its content on demand.

Dilemma #2, Big Pharma:  Big Pharma is REALLY big and is based primarily on a model that is around as old as your granny.  Two pillars, small molecule chemistry and blockbuster “one size fits all” treatments are what has driven the growth of this industry since the early 20th century but that is coming to an end.  Biotechnology in its many forms is most definitely the future of medicine in the 21st century.  A scan of where the breakthrough patents are being generated in the field and you can see the majority are coming out of small Biotechs and Universities not the massive health laboratories of the S&P 500.  The problem is that small molecule chemistry (what Big Pharma is great at) is not Biotechnology any more than plumbing is interpretive dance.  The initiative needed to transition the capabilities of say, a Pfizer (100,000+ employees2), to a new science is immense, perhaps too immense.  Coupled with this is a reality that Biotechnology tends to make very targeted drugs, limiting the opportunity for another “everyone gets a pill” Lipitor or Prosac, a model that Big Pharma now relies on.  So the dilemma is set, Big Pharma must re-skill, and possibly re-size, but to do it now or to hold on for just one more blockbuster?

Dilemma #3, Microsoft Office:  Microsoft itself is arguably in the middle of an innovators dilemma but I thought I would pose the case for one of its most profitable jewels, Office being very much in the middle of a technology revolution itself.  Office is everywhere, you can’t do business without the ability to open and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents and this has ensured that the Office suite has remained the standard install for companies worldwide for many years.  The knock-on effect of Office being the choice of your company is that you are far more likely to install it on your home PC as well, and why learn two different systems?  So where is the dilemma?  Well, Microsoft knows that it won’t be long before the idea of having to boot up a desktop or notebook to balance the household budget or write your resume will be gone.  People will expect to run their households from their tablets and phones while sitting on their sofa not hiding away in the home office.  So, Office for tablets?  Where is it?  The problem is that fully functioning office products are complex, far more complex that we are used to dealing with on tablets and phones.  Microsoft’s choices seem to be a) cut back on the functionality (losing their technical advantage), b) teach us a new way of interacting (losing the synergy with the company office) or c) lose the home space all together.  You might be thinking that you would still be tied into the Office suite simply because even if you change your home tablet away from Office, other people will still send you Word documents. The simple fact however, is that file type is almost irrelevant these days. Download a free service like Open Office and you will see it is quite capable of opening Word docs and even saving them in Word format so on Monday morning your company PC will be compatible with your weekends endeavor.

1         http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2012/05/09/hbos-game-of-thrones-on-track-to-be-crowned-most-pirated-show-of-2012/

2         www.morningstar.com

Osmotic Innovation is Linking You Up

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The Next Level of BRIC

You may be focusing on developing new business opportunities in one of the BRIC – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – but Ernst & Young think you should look a level deeper, at what they call Rapid-Growth Markets (RGMs). The Winter edition of the forecast for these markets is well worth a read if your company is focusing on this type of innovation and growth.

Open Offices Ahead

In the open office plan being adapted by more organizations, management must be willing and open to change and allowing increased interactions. As this article points out, there are many benefits to embracing an open office design.

Speaking of Open Space

Check out this list of 15 amazing playgrounds from around the world. Is it any wonder kids are more creative? This is also an example of how many ways there are to creatively solve a problem – here finding a way to create space that kids can use to play and that is also visually stunning.

Implementing Culture Change to Drive Innovation

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As discussed in a post last week, innovation is in part a cultural phenomenon – something that is in a lot of ways the antithesis of the culture that naturally appears in a successful firm over time. But its easy to change the culture to harness innovation, right?

You can’t be blamed for believing this, with the plethora of books and management consultants touting numerous ‘can’t fail’ ways to change the company culture from the CEO down as a way to boost innovation and create a renewed energy. Unfortunately, this is a lot easier said or written about than done. And what about those of us that work in a company that either thinks it is already innovative enough or has no interest in changing what works now for the larger corporation? How can an individual create real organizational change to increase and drive innovation without the power of the CEO to direct internal marketing campaigns and HR efforts?

As companies grow they require increased systems, processes, and hierarchy in order to manage the growth and control profitability. Eventually, this driving force becomes self-sustaining – with success comes bureaucracy (perhaps necessarily) and people that function well within a structured and organized environment. Eventually those innovative and driving employees that were the root of the success of the company either change to fit into the new dominant culture or are forced out. We justify this by saying that they aren’t a cultural fit anymore. At some point though in the progression of most firms it will become necessary to shift the culture to recapture that innovative spirit, at the very least within individual business units or groups that are looking for growth and new opportunities.

To understand how to impact the culture to improve innovation we must first understand two aspects of culture that can limit innovation:

Shared Beliefs: In most organizations, as a result of the filtering process that occurs during hiring and induction and that continues through teams shared experiences a strong set of shared beliefs will appear. These can be a strong tool to strengthen a corporation, leading to more delegation, decreased monitoring, higher satisfaction, higher motivation, faster coordination, and more communication, but importantly, also to less experimentation and less information collection.[1] Experimentation and information gathering are at the core of innovation, so while shared beliefs can be great for the corporation they can also severely limit innovation for a team.

Focus on Process Excellence and Cost Cutting: As stated above, a successful firm will have developed a strong bureaucracy by the time change for innovations sake is necessary. A focus on strong process excellence and cost cutting (along with out-sourcing and quality) are essential to deliver consistent returns to Wall Street. However, they are also an enemy of innovation as they look to eliminate complex projects that don’t fit the model and discourage high risk activities that require investments of time and money.

Knowing that these two things; Shared Beliefs and Focus on Process Excellence and Cost Cutting are major parts of the problem is only the start. How might the Osmotic Innovation change their team using this knowledge?

Disrupting Shared Beliefs: One cannot eliminate all sources of shared beliefs – so long as employees work together they will gradually build this characteristic. However, manager selection of employees plays a very strong role in sustaining shared beliefs. By selecting employees that are ‘culture fits’ or that think like the manager they sustain and strengthen this culture. Hiring people that are viewed as cultural risks while having the right skill set is one possible way to shift shared beliefs to encourage more experimentation and information gathering. Note that these should be people in important positions – having a few crazy technicians won’t disrupt the way that a group of managers or senior scientists think. It has been shown that culture and shared beliefs tend to flow from the important people within an organization so an even easier mechanism might be to put those who are willing to buck the status quo in your current organization into positions of responsibility and power or appoint them to take a lead on innovation initiatives.

Really Focus on Innovation: Because most employees see their compensation and reward systems being tied to the values of process excellence, cost cutting, and quality finding time or initiative to work on innovation or the willingness to support high programs is unlikely. Instead innovation needs to become part of everyone’s day-job, and should be tied to their annual performance / compensation reviews. This shows the commitment to innovation that can encourage creative employees to begin committing to new ideas and innovation. As was learned in the 1980’s at the joint Toyota-GM NUMMI venture, changing culture starts with changing what people do – the new way of thinking will come.[2] John Shook has described this in a model based on Edgar Schein’s original model of corporate culture; shown to the right. Apply this lesson by making employees responsible to deliver innovation as part of their job function. The new way of thinking (and culture) will follow. Merely advertising a new motto or idea to change peoples thinking isn’t enough to change values and attitudes and what people really do.

Short of wholesale changes driven by the CEO and Board, culture change to increase innovation can be managed and implemented within smaller parts of the organization by recognizing the key factors that drive and develop culture. Disrupting the entrenched belief systems to encourage experimentation and new knowledge gathering along with making innovation a measured part of a teams job function can be the levers used by the Osmotic Innovator to change a team or organizations culture from the ground up.


[1] Van den Steen, Eric. On the origin of shared beliefs (and corporate culture) RAND Journal of Economics. Vol 41, No.4, Winter 2010. 617-648.

[2] Shook, John. How to Change a Culture: Lessons from NUMMI. MIT Sloan Management Review. Winter 2010, Vol. 51, No. 2. 63 – 68.

Osmotic Innovation is Linking You Up

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The Five Personalities of Innovators

According to this article by Brenna Sniderman published on Forbes.com the most successful teams include all five personality types. Click through to read about Movers and Shakers, Hangers-on, Experimenters, Star Pupils, and Controllers. Which are you and which are missing from your team?

Is Working for a Corporation Better?

The team at Fast Company gives 9 reasons you should work at a corporate job rather than a start-up. We’ll let the author, Jeetu Patel, sum it up; “Startups can be amazing places to work, and the euphoria surrounding them has a high degree of contagion. But future leaders have unique lessons to learn by working for larger, more established companies as well.”

Get Out of Your Box!

In previous blogs, we have explored the topic of groups and interactions among people and have described the drawbacks as well as importance of including people from outside a specific type of organization.  In this article, Jose Baldaia provides an argument on the importance of a team and the power of the contributions it can provide to a company.