Innovation Is Messy: Boeing’s Dreamliner Story

Boeing’s new Dreamliner airliner has been in the works for nine years. Everyone in the industry agrees that it is an impressive innovation, a huge leap forward in technology. With the many innovations contained in its design, it will burn less fuel, fly longer distances, and keep passengers more comfortable.

The market has spoken in favor of this new innovation: Airlines have ordered a total of 848 of these airplanes, with most of the orders coming in even before they were manufactured. Only 50 Dreamliners are in service so far. And this week, those 50 were grounded by regulators because some of the lithium-ion batteries on board caught fire. (This is the same battery technology that’s probably in your laptop computer, but you’re safe–things are different on an airplane. And by the way, this is the first airplane to use these batteries: one of many separate innovations.)

I’m known as a proponent of bottom up, emergent innovation. This is the central theme of my book Group Genius. When I give keynote talks and workshops, I tend to talk about serial innovators like Google, W. L. Gore, Semco, and Pixar. These companies push innovation down to the lowest possible organizational level, releasing the creative powers of all of their workers. With everyone having ideas constantly, and then having collaborative conversations that bring these ideas together, gradually something significant and innovative can emerge.

But something has always nagged me about this process of emergent bottom-up innovation, and the Boeing situation helps me understand what’s been bugging me. Here’s what I think it is: The bottom-up style of emergent innovation only works in organizations where everyone’s group is relatively independent. By “independent” I mean that when you have new ideas, it doesn’t have implications for anyone outside of your group.

  • When a group at Google developed gmail, it didn’t have any interactions with their search engine, so they could proceed independently without worrying about constantly communicating with the search group.
  • When a team at W. L. Gore developed a new line of guitar strings, that new product didn’t have any implications for Gore’s GoreTex waterproof fabric. So they could proceed independently and not worry about damaging the fabric product lines.

Designing a new airplane over a nine year period is completely different. Every single person’s decisions are deeply interdependent with potentially hundreds of other people. The battery team (or whoever decided on lithium ion batteries) is deeply interdependent with many other design features of the airplane.

It seems to me that whenever you are innovating in a context of high interdependency, you can’t use the same model of distributed, emergent innovation. You need lots of coordination, and that probably means a more top-down, more organized style of innovation. You need lots of communication, constant confirmation that whatever new idea you have isn’t going to mess up some other group’s design.

I still believe that the most powerful form of innovation is the bottom-up, emergent process. But is this really possible in a situation of high interdependency and complexity, like the Boeing Dreamliner?

*Daniel Michaels, “Innovation is messy business.” Wall Street Journal, Thursday January 24, 2013. pp. B1, B2.