January 23, 2013
Piloting a plane in zero visibility requires a steady hand and a cool head.
Those who can't make adjustments en route are in for a bumpy ride.
Leading a business into the future is much the same, complicated by all the unknowns and unknowables the accelerating pace of change creates. To be ready not just for tomorrow but the tomorrows after that requires a plan that puts you somewhere you can't yet fully see and faith that your capabilities will grow to satisfy your ambitions.
This is particularly true of heavy industries, which must gear up for new ventures well in advance that should operate for many years more. If any company knows that, it's Chicago-based aircraft giant Boeing, whose journey into the next two decades with the 787 Dreamliner has been anything but an uneventful flight.
Now grounded by battery safety concerns after years of production snags and delayed deliveries, the 787 has been weighed down by the difficulty in attempting to change so much of how passenger jets are made and flown in the name of economic and energy efficiency.
The 787 has also had to carry the burden of great expectations, many laid out by Boeing in order to generate interest among company leadership and potential customers. The degree of difficulty and daring of pulling it off was part of the attraction.
"As Julius Caesar said in the HBO miniseries 'Rome,' 'It's only hubris if you lose,'" said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with Teal Group. "It's possible to overstate the level of technological change here. But nevertheless, it is a remarkable confluence of new ideas and new equipment being brought together. And predictably enough, it's a painful birth."
Aboulafia cites what's known as the J-Curve of developing ambitious projects, so named for ideas that sink before they rise, resembling the letter "J." The 787, he said, is a J-Curve aircraft in that it set out with lofty goals and innovations upon innovations, but it was quickly slowed by delays, overruns and other disappointing setbacks. Either it rights itself in time and reaches the heights of its potential or it peters out, but it's exciting in any case.
"It's not the sort of straight and level takeoff that you expect from a jet that uses relatively incremental (advances in) technology," Aboulafia said. "Instead, you're taking a big leap and very often, almost always, that involves a sudden painful drop followed by, hopefully, a very promising rebound."
The metaphor can work on the ground too.
Lisle-based truck- and engine-maker Navistar gambled $700 million and a decade or so on developing antipollution technology that never quite got airborne within the constraints of requisite fuel-efficiency standards.
Last year, it finally had to announce it was going to reduce its diesel heavy-duty engine exhaust pollutants by adopting the same after-treatment process its competitors all embraced earlier. The money and time lost took a toll. The CEO lost his job.
"I work with engineers a lot, and that's considered a poster child for not listening to engineers in terms of not pulling the plug in time," said Michael Rogers, an author and principal of Practical Futurist. "Boeing, on the other hand, is very much an engineer-driven company. In fact, I got a briefing a few years ago on their (787) design process because it was the most sophisticated effort ever to truly internationalize design. They had people all over the world."
It would have been easier, perhaps, to be less ambitious. But that poses its own risks, in that you don't want to spend years developing a plane and production process that is outdated too soon.
Another danger is that you develop something so innovative that the marketplace isn't ready to embrace it. Rogers notes Steve Jobs' Next computer, which eschewed floppy disks because Jobs believed them unwieldy. They were unwieldy, but they were also popular among computer users, so the result was a computer 10 years ahead of its time and consumer demand.
That's why companies like Boeing work with consultants such as Rogers and Glen Hiemstra, founder and owner of Futurist.com: To try to get a read on what's around the corner without veering off track, not aiming to advance too much or too little.
"When I work with organizations on long-term vision, one criteria — and there's no magic about it — is trying to get the stretch just right," Hiemstra said. "It can't be so far out that everybody throws up their hands and says, 'It's impossible,' and it's not so near that everyone says, 'Who would care if we did that?'"
Hiemstra said he would guess that when the history of the 787 ultimately is written, it will show that "there were a lot of stretch goals in terms of technology and processes that they were going for," given the design and production processes, the electrical systems and fuel efficiency and beyond. "This particular airplane is a very bold airplane, so it would be not surprising if they overstretched here and there," he said.
The selling point to passengers on Boeing's 787 — when this latest stumbling block is removed — will continue to be what they notice in the cabin: the air circulation and pressurization systems, as well as the larger storage bins and windows.
But that's not the atmosphere and baggage that has clouded its development. It's also not the big-picture view that matters most. As with all things aviation, the takeoff can be rough. It's the landing that really counts.