Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Markus Durstewitz

Airbus innovation outposts in Silicon Valley and Shenzhen, China, are working on moonshot projects such as Vahana, a single-passenger, self-piloted electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, to help the company keep up with the pace of change in the transportation sector. And the aeronautics giant is sourcing new technologies and business models through its interactions with startups. But these efforts alone are not sufficient for radically transforming a large organization like Airbus. Innovation requires change management and that is where Markus Durstewitz, Head of Innovation Methods and Tools at Airbus, comes in.

Durstewitz, who earned a PhD in human-machine systems and cognitive engineering, has nearly twenty-five years of experience in the aerospace industry, holding key positions along the complete product life-cycle from advanced research, systems engineering, program management, customer service and operations to corporate strategy and business development. He is also a founding member of the faculty at futur/io, a new European education and research institute focused on exponential technologies and desirable futures.He recently spoke to The Innovator about the mindset and skill sets needed to transform a large corporation.

Q: How does a corporation implement the right mindset and skill sets needed to build an innovation ecosystem?

MD: Innovation thrives with collaboration. It is about connecting people and ideas. You need to engage people in experimentation and collaboration and you need to enable fast decision-making and learning in an organization.One problem in large organizations is that over time administrative processes live for the process not for the purpose. But the most important thing is the purpose, the vision of where you want to go with clear concrete targets. For this, you may define strategic innovation areas and launch associated moonshot projects, creating the necessary momentum to drive change and to embark the ecosystem on your transformation journey towards the Next Big Thing.

To build an innovation ecosystem you need to have the right mindset and skill sets in place for an effective — not only efficient — process that generates impact and value, and that is fast enough to meet potential opportunity windows. This seems very obvious but in general, if you do not understand very well the complete business context, you might be too slow and you miss the opportunity.

Q: How does Airbus work with startups?

A: Airbus Bizlab, a global aerospace accelerator program, is a natural entry point as it aims to speed-up innovation by on-boarding and learning from startups. Our venture arm, with offices in Silicon Valley and Paris, is another.The major task is to map the startup idea with a specific business need and connect the startup with the Airbus ecosystem, more precisely with the respective product owner and the supply chain, i.e. the potential internal customer and/or investor. Finally, it is about connecting people and ideas.

Q: What sort of building blocks have been put in place to make sure innovation thrives?

MD: My mission is to build and maintain an effective corporate innovation culture, opening up the organization for exploring the new and implementing capabilities enabling innovation: namely entrepreneurship, experimentation and fast learning. The focus is on delivering value to customers and users of our products and services, along the complete value chain.For this, we build on a continuously growing innovation community and have installed a network of innovation catalysts at all major sites and functions. We have defined a set of relevant innovation methods and tools based on the principles of Design Thinking, packaged them into formats, innovation campaigns, sprints, boot camps, or a complete acceleration program.In addition, we see the need for dedicated innovation spaces as physical anchor points for the innovation community, a home for innovation.

In general, innovation starts always with a challenge. Strategic innovation areas help to frame the challenges and to give direction. Awareness sessions and training, managed by a dedicated innovation academy, help to develop the people in terms of mindset and skill set. The key for success remains the right teaming for cross-functional and eventual cross-industry collaboration. For this we count on communities. Thus, the first thing I did was to roll out an online community platform designed to run focused innovation campaigns connecting people and ideas across functions and organizational boundaries.

This community platform is called IdeaSpace and is the backbone for innovation at Airbus. Here, business owners publish their challenges and employees share their ideas, discuss, comment and vote for the best ideas. Today, 40,000 employees are registered on the platform so if you launch an innovation challenge you have a very good reach within the company. IdeaSpace gives us a structured, more efficient way to collect ideas while ensuring that the focus is set on specific challenges. Secondly, and more importantly, it helps us identify people interested in the problem area independent of their departments of origin.

Q: Can you give an example of how this has worked in practice?

MD: In 2013, we launched our first IdeaSpace campaign focusing on 3D printing. With IdeaSpace it was easy to reach out to more than 10,000 engineers and we got several hundred submissions in return. Many very good ideas made it into our products but more importantly we had laid the baseline for a 3D printing community and later a 3D printing plateau — a cross functional organization. This virtual community is the real success story. Dedicated challenges represent a great way to create awareness, to engage the people in the community, and eventually to collect some good ideas. IdeaSpace campaigns are a really powerful tool for promoting a specific technology and leveraging its potential.

Q: How does Airbus Leadership University fit in?

MD: Recently, we extended the open innovation approach to all division reaching out to over 130,000 employees at group level. Under the lead of Airbus Leadership University we run a global challenge called ‘Dream Big’ inspired by the X-Prize Foundation as a companywide contest for ideas and solutions to the organization’s biggest future challenges. We got over 700 ideas from employees all over the world. Each idea was presented in a one-minute video. And, we selected 150 finalists who were invited to join a two-day co-creation session where they worked in teams of five on future scenarios and solutions. Actually, the teams are in a three months incubation phase to prepare for the implementation of their ideas.

Q: What important lessons have you learned on the job?

MD: In the beginning, we said ‘let’s collect ideas’ but this approach does not work. You end up with thousands of ideas without a target and implementation channel. You need to define the challenge first. If you focus around a challenge with a clear need from business you have a chance to succeed. What is important is to have clear sponsorship behind the challenge — someone willing to spend money to solve his/her problem.

Another lesson is that creativity and structure go together. For example, we base our methods on design thinking; some people may think it is only about creativity but in fact, it provides you a structure, a process, to create the right framework and to guide people on their innovation journey.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

MD: Innovation is about managing change. So the most difficult part is to overcome the resistance to change. A company is optimized to perform and excel in its operations and to deliver what is defined. But innovation asks for doing things differently; it disturbs; it triggers the immune system of the organization, which in response is trying to kill the innovation virus.

Finally, the standard corporate processes do not work for innovation. You may need to break the rules and use a fast track process instead. For this, you need top management support and allowance for experimentation -if only in a controlled secured area or a parallel dedicated innovation ecosystem. My job is to ensure that the organization learns not just to live with change but embrace it.

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.