Practicing what he preached, Doug Busch, a senior executive with fledgling telehealth company Care Innovations, used an innovative analogy to drive his point on innovation.
“An analogy can be made between breaking the sound barrier in planes and breaking the innovation barrier in organizations,” he told an audience of Intel employees recently in Folsom, Calif. “The rate of innovation in any organization or any business is roughly equivalent to the speed an aircraft is trying to fly.”
In his first presentation at Intel since leaving the company in January to become senior vice president and chief operating officer of Care Innovations, a joint venture of Intel and GE Healthcare, Busch used charts, diagrams and formulas perhaps better suited for a class lecture at Caltech to illustrate his point on the pace of innovation and how to think about it systematically within organizations.
“I’m an aviation buff and I tend to think by analogy,” Busch prefaced in his talk titled “Breaking the Innovation Barrier.”
Opening his presentation with a chart illustrating different forms of drag versus airspeed, a visual met with chuckles and groans from the audience, Busch said, “When an airplane flies, one of the key things you have to worry about is the amount of force and thrust it takes to get to a particular speed. You’ve got to have the airplane at an angle in the air and there’s a lot of drag that comes with that. As you speed up that actually drops off. You can flatten the airplane out and that drag reduces, but the form drag increases as you speed up.”
Busch would eventually tie this back to innovation, but not before continuing his lesson in aerodynamics.
“So there’s a crossover point between these two and there’s an optimum which says that for any given airplane there’s a speed you can fly at that requires the least amount of thrust, the least amount of energy out of the engine and the lowest fuel consumption and so forth,” he said. “The optimum speed of the airplane if you’re trying to be efficient is to run it right here.”
Busch’s premise is similarity exists between the physics and aerodynamics of an airplane and the problems of a good idea not getting into practice very easily. If innovation moves slowly in a company or division, he reasoned, the cause could be a penchant to rely on old practices within the group, its leadership, the general workforce or a combination of all three.
“As you speed up some of that goes away,” Busch said. “By the same token, as you go faster and faster you start incurring more energy. As your rate of innovation increases you radically increase the amount of energy you have to invest to make change happen.
“Just like an airplane that has an optimum cruising speed, there is, in some sense, an optimum rate of innovation in an organization where a saddle point between these two factors happens.”
In the middle, Busch said, there’s a balance between the legacy being carried and the effort needed to create innovation, or as he phrased it, “cruising speed” for an organization.
“It’s the place where it requires the least amount of energy, the least amount of risk, the least investment of money to run the organization.”
That’s a good thing, right? Not according to Busch, the former Intel vice president and chief technology officer in the company’s Digital Health Group.
“It’s very tempting to say that’s where we ought to operate. If we sit right on that saddle point then life will be as good as it’s ever going to get,” Busch said. “Well, just as a fighter plane doesn’t necessarily want to engage in combat at its cruising speed, I don’t know that we want to engage in competition in cruising speed, either.”
In fact, Bush added, “If you fall below that optimum point you’re probably in danger of stalling from a business standpoint. That’s a very dangerous position to be in. You have to be competing aggressively, which means you need to be innovating at a rate that’s faster than what is comfortable.”
At Care Innovations, which is just several weeks old, Busch said his new company is still figuring out how fast it wants to move from an innovation standpoint. A key to determining this is hiring people with multidisciplinary skills.
“It’s really important that people have depth, but it’s also important they have breadth when you try to create innovation because what it does is allow, for example, analogies to be constructed. If you’ve got folks who can sit in a meeting and talk about, ‘Well, we’ve got a mechanical problem and an electrical problem, but here’s a way we can solve the problem with finance by getting the solution through our cost structure,’ that’s an opportunity for innovation.”
Likening the way NASA sent up planes that were instrumented to determine how the aerodynamics of Mach 1 worked, Busch encourages organizations to think about how innovation is happening and what the obstacles are.
“When you sit in a meeting, ask yourself, ‘What am I doing during this discussion that’s getting in the way of someone else’s idea coming to fruition?’ The notion of systematically thinking about the way your organization is structured, the way your people behave and the way you behave as an individual can change the design of the airplane you’re flying through the innovation space. It can change the drag coefficient for innovation in your domain.”
Getting great ideas is not the hard part of innovation, Busch concluded. “The thing organizations need to do to be more successful, for their workforce to feel more fulfilled, is find ways to get ideas into practice in a higher fraction and in a shorter period of time.”