Boeing and the Cost of True Innovation

Posted by: in Corporate and Strategy on March 4, 2013

Is it possible that Boeing CEO Jim McNerney and his team are in a highly enviable position?

After repeated and well-publicized delays, Boeing introduced the 787 Dreamliner in October 2011. Today, the worldwide fleet is grounded while the company races to determine the flaw that causes its lithium ion batteries to overheat while in flight. It’s a precarious situation, but one day this period may be looked back upon as the time when Boeing helped commercial air travel take a great leap forward.

In the near term, Boeing and its executives will justifiably be called to account. Air travel, while statistically the safest mode of transportation, has obvious inherent risks. Manufacturing an aircraft that can carry 310 people up to 41,000 feet in the air carries a special obligation for public safety. If shortcuts were taken or known risks were overlooked, those responsible should face the appropriate consequences.

But the current mood that assumes all business errors are intentional wrongdoing overlooks a fundamental and unassailable fact: Innovation is messy.

Many companies are focused on positioning themselves as innovators in their space. Yet, few organizations grasp what true innovation actually is, much less the accompanying risks they have to take to achieve it.

Thomas Edison famously attempted more than 1,000 experiments before he successfully “invented” the light bulb. It’s an anecdote that many people casually hold up as an example of the vision and tenacity that’s needed for true innovation – the authentic creation of something new that can advance the state of human affairs – as opposed to the faux innovation most companies practice, which often entails simply buying and implementing a new browser-based software platform.

When people talk about Edison’s dogged pursuit of the light bulb, they naturally focus on the end event – the incandescent light bulb whose technology went largely unchanged for nearly 100 years. Few people focus on the process – the 999 failed experiments, or as Edison would say, the 999 ways he learned not to make a light bulb. If Edison were alive today, it’s questionable whether he might maintain the same conviction to pursue his craft under the same scrutiny of today’s commentators who celebrate innovators but deplore true innovation.

The folklore that surrounds Edison’s innovation is revealing in itself. While Edison is credited with inventing the light bulb after nearly 1,000 tries, he in fact did not invent it. The first electric light was invented nearly 80 years before Edison created the carbon-filament light bulb, which lasted longer and made the product commercially viable. And the actual number of his failed experiments was closer to 1,400. But more than a century later, Edison’s voluminous failures and painstaking path to a product that legitimately changed the way we live are considered trivial and easily ignored.

One of the truly innovative aspects of the 787 is that its designers chose not to use conventional hydraulic controls – which add bulk and weight to planes – and replaced them with electrically powered compressors and pumps. But those compressors and pumps require a kind of different energy source. Hence, the 787 is the first passenger jet to rely heavily on lithium-ion batteries, which unfortunately are what’s causing the problem now.

While Jim McNerney and his engineers dedicate their time to solving the battery problem, their focus should rightly be on restoring the Dreamliner to operation in a condition that can best guarantee the safety of passengers and crew. Should they succeed, they will have helped modern air travel to make another leap forward. In time, it’s likely the story that’s told about the introduction of the 787 Dreamliner will be much different than the one being told today. For now, the company will continue to be scrutinized and second-guessed.

Such is the cost of true innovation.

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