By Shell on Sep 2, 2021
In 2013, a group of European professors set out on a study into innovation.1 The hypothesis Nikolaus Franke and his colleagues were testing: are industry-specific issues solved most effectively by those within the industry or by those from distant sectors that share a similar need?
The study saw the team ask three seemingly disparate groups – roofers, carpenters and inline skaters – for ideas on how to improve the design of safety gear used in the other professions.
With little knowledge of their contemporaries’ specific requirements or restrictions, but a shared experience of protective equipment, the study showed that each group was more effective at generating new solutions for the other professions than they were for their own.
While deep industry knowledge is often a sought-after commodity, these findings suggest it can also lead to industry experts sometimes not being able to see the forest for the trees.
A concept that Shweta Saxena, MachineMax CEO, is intimately aware of, having started her career in sales before falling “by accident” into product development. It was there, while working for computer technology leaders Dell, that her manager saw something that she was perhaps too close to, to see herself.
“There was a need at the time for some product management expertise,” Shweta recalls, “but there was no one to fill the role. My boss actually pushed me to fill the gap – they had obviously seen something in me that I couldn’t see in myself at that time, which was a useful way of thinking about product development and how to make teams work around those products.”
Innovation happens at different speeds for incumbents versus start-ups
Curating an outside-in perspective
And then, as a leader herself some years later, Shweta applied this very same mode of thinking: “my other co-founder, Amit, and I were conducting some ethnographic research around the construction and mining industries,” she says, “when we were surprised to find that there was no single telematics provider that could deliver data for all machines in one single platform. And that’s ultimately how MachineMax was born.”
Introducing an outside perspective is something that many successful leaders do when a team or industry is perhaps too close to the project or too entrenched in certain ways of working or thinking. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, for example, habitually hired people from outside of the computing profession, leading to a diverse collection of musicians, poets, artists, zoologists and historians coming together to develop the first Macintosh computer.2
For Shweta, it was a blend of her serial entrepreneurialism, mathematics and product development background, and passion for digital transformation that led to working with Shell on the MachineMax project. “One of the key things happening at Shell right now is that they are looking beyond hydrocarbons, at what the future might look like for Shell,” she explains. “So, our reasoning with MachineMax was: data is the new oil, right?”
Understanding the power of data may not seem a ground-breaking idea to some, but for many well-established industrial sectors, this kind of change can be slower to take place.
“Innovation happens at different speeds for incumbents versus start-ups,” suggests Shweta, “To use a favourite analogy of mine: the start-up is your dolphin – very nimble and quick to move. Whereas, the larger sectors are more similar to a whale – it will take a little time to get going, but once it does start to move, it can quickly gather a pretty huge head of steam.”
As a universal telematics device, we achieved product market fit quite easily
Why partnership is the new leadership
When approaching a traditionally resistant industry with a potentially disruptive technology, there are several hurdles to overcome. For aspiring leaders in this situation, a critical starting point is to identify a need, before having a proof of concept that can meet that need.
Shweta explains: “Fragmentation happens at every level in these industries, with most companies using mixed fleets of equipment. However, businesses still require 100% visibility into their fleet, which can lead to reports having to be manually stitched together in some cases. As a universal telematics device, we therefore achieved product market fit quite easily.”
However, meeting a primary need alone is not enough in today’s highly competitive market. Any viable product needs to also be extremely reliable, particularly when being used in a field – like construction or mining – that depends on reliability to survive.
Fortunately, an initial minimum viable product (MVP) can help to encourage early adoption. The right approach – including customer-centric development and collaborative relationship building – can then help turn these early adopters into influential co-creators.
“You have to cross this chasm at some point,” says Shweta, “where you move from an MVP to a desirable and mass-ready product. And for us, having had this start-up mentality in the way that the MVP was created, it was adopted very quickly, with early adopters then working together with us on future iterations.”
As modern solutions become more geared towards solving societal problems – just as MachineMax helps to improve fleet efficiency and reduce emissions – leadership becomes less about winning. Rather, it is increasingly about bringing others along the journey with you, through engagement, facilitation and co-creation.
The best leaders are actually going ahead, taking charge and making the changes required
Learning by doing and leading by example
Any effective study, invention or innovation begins with a hypothesis. But it’s only when this hypothesis is tested in real-world conditions that the project can be deemed a success or failure.
Shweta agrees: “With MachineMax, we took a Double Diamond approach. After identifying the customer pain point, we then started thinking of as many solutions as possible, allowing us to narrow down on a specific hypothesis. Then, we started our operational testing to see if the solution would work in real-life conditions.”
The Double Diamond approach was popularised by the British Design Council in 2005 and involves a four-stage process:
- Discover: Research into and around the problem to ascertain a key insight
- Define: Narrow down the focus through further exploration
- Develop: Provide a range of potential answers, drawing inspiration from various sources
- Deliver: Test the solutions on a small scale and receive feedback from co-creators
This particular approach ultimately concludes with some form of real-world testing or what Shweta terms “learning by doing”. Something that, given the impact on industry during the pandemic, leaders are becoming more practised in.
This mentality shift has trickled down to sustainability actions too, with industry leaders gearing up to the change that is increasingly being demanded by their employees, their shareholders and of course, wider society.
“The best leaders have understood this shift,” says Shweta. “They are not just performing lip service. They are actually going ahead, taking charge and making the changes required. I have seen certain construction companies, for example, that now talk about a business vision from the top-down that is linked to sustainable energy.”
Sustainable growth requires a change in mindset
Difficulty arises, however, when an industry is caught between the seeming paradox of having to increase output to meet societal needs, and needing to reduce environmental impact to meet industry regulations.
Though a definitive solution to this issue has yet to be established, the sudden jolt to the system that the pandemic provided is perhaps exactly what industries needed to be able to more clearly see the positive impact that a sustainability agenda can have on other areas of business.
And, as Shweta explains, positive results can soon initiate a snowball effect: “We’ve seen companies take action on the low-hanging fruit – reducing fuel, idling and emissions figures – before then looking toward the next step for sustainability, which is understanding what this data really means and how it can be used to consistently improve operations.”
But, just as the 2013 study suggests, the biggest change is arguably not in the actions being taken but in the changes in thinking that lead to these actions.
“Historically in these industries, anytime there were inefficiencies, there would always be someone complaining about it,” Shweta reflects. “But now things are changing – the noises coming out are a lot more positive. Things have moved from watching the operator to watching the operations, and a lot of that is coming from a change in management perspective. In short, it’s a behavioural change.”