Better Flights and Light Bulbs: 2 Case Studies from the Front Lines of Innovation

Innovation takes many forms. This article details how the U.S. government and startup companies are innovating to change the world for the better.

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What comes to mind when you think about innovation? For me, two images come to mind. I think of consumer electronics such as Apple's iPhone or a scientist creating a new medical treatment. Such examples of innovation tend to grab all the media attention. In fact, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to innovation.

Innovation takes many different shapes and forms. For example, innovation in services can reduce waiting times and increase customer loyalty – valuable results that don't fit with traditional product launches. We may admire how Apple and Google produce new products but there are many other approaches to innovation to consider.

In this article, let's look at how two organizations – the U.S. government and a small firm – deliver innovation. These examples are full of lessons for the thoughtful reader, especially for those in different industries.

Innovation Through Implementation: U.S. Department of Transportation Implements GPS

Innovation includes implementing existing technology in new ways.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation implemented a satellite based system based on GPS. This billion dollar project replaced the ground based tracking system that has been in place since the mid twentieth century. The project required cooperation from airlines, aircraft manufacturers and many other stakeholders; there was no solitary scientist working away in a lab in this case.

Launched in 2007 with a $1.7 billion dollar budget, the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) project is an excellent example of a successful government technology project. The ADS-B project also reminds us that successful innovation can be delivered over a period of years, a counterpoint to the speed obsession of the startup world.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) recently summarized the benefits of the ADS-B project in a case study called “Transforming Air Traffic within the U.S. National Airspace System."

• Reduced delays. ADS-B reduces delays due to weather, a benefit that will be enjoyed by passengers for years to come.

• Better information for air traffic control. Air traffic controllers will receive updated information on aircraft locations every second instead of every 12 seconds. Given that a typical commercial aircraft's cruising speed is 0.13 miles per second, this is a significant improvement.

• Improved safety. ADS-B achieved lower accident rates in Alaska and other remote locations.

• Cost reductions. ADS-B has reduced fuel and other aviation costs by charting more effective routes and aiding planes in navigating around storms.

PMI's report also makes the case that effective leadership and management skills made a critical difference to the project. The institute attributes much of the project's success to "institut[ing] a governance process." This reminds us that day to day management skills are vitally important in delivering innovation. Raw technical skill is rarely enough to deliver complex and innovative projects.

What existing technology or methodology can your organization implement to improve results? The success of the ADS-B project shows that implementing existing technology can yield significant benefits.

Ask yourself whether your organization is making effective use of all the technology you already have in place. I have seen large organizations continue to rely on manual Excel spreadsheets for decision making, despite the availability of databases and similar tools that prevent common errors. In that case, productivity gains could be achieved with a targeted training and development program focused on leveraging existing technology.

Reinventing the Light Bulb: Making Infrastructure Better

LIFX Labs is reinventing the light bulb with a product called LIFX. Though I can't speak from personal experience, this project strikes me as intriguing on several levels.

• More colors. The LIFX LED is capable of displaying millions of colors. There's no need to keep to standard issue white light.

• Increased longevity. The LED is rated to last 40,000 hours! (In contrast, The New York Times reports that the average incandescent light bulb lasts 1,000 to 2,000 hours.)

Think about the infrastructure that your firm owns or uses every day. Since lights and other infrastructure have been around a long time, we don't often think about it. Yet, LIFX shows that these "basic technologies" are overdue for major improvement.

LIFX suggests several opportunities for CIOs and other executives. Procurement procedures often treat light bulbs as interchangeable commodities. The commodity approach discourages seeking out innovative products that can reduce costs. Consider encouraging your procurement department to revisit how they purchase basic products. By changing procurement practices, your organization will also signal increased demand for innovation.

As we approach a new year, use these examples to rethink innovation. The examples show that innovation can be achieved through better procurement, using current technology better and taking on multi-year projects. In addition, keep in mind the enduring value of developing skilled managers and leaders. At the end of the day, motivated people deliver innovation.

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