Instilling a Culture of Innovation

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As the first phase of the Airports of the Future (AOTF) project draws to a close, it presents an opportunity not only to evaluate the contributions of the individual teams, but to step back and consider the positive cultural changes that have emerged as a result of the collaboration between research and operations.

At the AOTF Showcase in Brisbane last month, Alex Dreiling (BAC’s Chair of Innovation) provided an insightful perspective on the process of turning ideas or concepts into commercially viable products. A key takeaway from Alex’s talk was the distinction between ideas, innovations and their subsequent implementation in an operational context (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The role of research in fuelling the innovation pipeline: many ideas are generated, culled and only the most viable pursued to full implementation
Source: Adapted from Transient Advantage, Rita Gunther McGrath, Harvard Business Review, June 2013

At the beginning of a project, there are many ideas which are generated as potential solutions to a given problem. As these ideas are explored, tested and trialled, a number will be rejected. This of course need not signify that the idea is unworthy, but more likely, that it is unfeasible to pursue (in most cases due to the cost or time needed to develop the idea further). The process of culling the entire pool of ideas to just the handful worth pursuing is generally called “research”.

Of the set of ideas retained, each will need to be explored in more detail. This process is usually associated with the creation of prototypes, working models or small scale test implementations. In general, this phase is conducted with the support of an industry partner who will provide a test bed for exercising and refining the initial concepts. Once again, the process will involve pruning the ideas which, whether for technical or financial reasons, are deemed not commercially viable. This phase consists of a combination of research and implementation, and is hence referred to as co-innovation.

The final phase in the process, implementation, takes an idea which has been rigorously tested in a (limited) operational environment and looks at ways of scaling it for commercial use. Again, it is possible that roadblocks are encountered during this process that prevent the ultimate delivery of a commercial product: perhaps underlying  technologies need time to mature, maybe industry standards need to be developed, maybe the idea is too radical for immediate public consumption. The variables encountered during this phase are often complex, however, the decision risk is significantly mitigated as a result of the research conducted en route to this phase of the process.

The process outlined by Dreiling is reasonably straightforward to understand: the challenges lie in instilling the processes in a workplace environment. In order to successfully maintain an “innovation” culture in the workplace, it is likely that changes need to be made on both sides of the partnership equation. On the one hand, articulating the connection between research and commercial value is a skill that needs to be developed for those in academic towers. Conversely, adopting a longer term perspective and understanding the nature of research needs to be injected into the culture of those closer to the ground.

Source: Dreiling, Alexander and Recker, Jan, “Towards a Theoretical Framework for Organizational Innovation

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