How open innovation and diverse thinking drives cultural change and improves operational efficiency with Dr. Omar Hatamleh
Dr. Omar Hatamleh was the Chief Innovation Officer, Engineering at NASA Johnson Space Center and Associate Chief Scientist at NASA ARC. He has since assumed the role of Executive Director of the Space Studies Program.
Omar will be flying to the Gold Coast to keynote at ADAPT’s Connected Cloud and DC Edge in March. He shared with ADAPT’s Director of Strategic Research Matt Boon his experiences in encouraging business leaders to continue to be agents for cultural change and innovation, and how diverse thinking can help us get there.
Thinking about it from your role as the Chief Innovation Officer at NASA. Maybe having a role such as that would mean truly being at the forefront of technology, innovation and leadership, facing challenges of a magnitude not typically experienced in your average business.
Clearly NASA has to deal with things, which most organisations wouldn’t necessarily dream of, but rarely even think about. The ability to enable innovation and transformation is one of the core competencies I see leaders need within Australia and indeed globally to succeed. What do innovation and transformation mean to you, Omar? We tend to talk to them fairly in the same breath: Innovation and Transformation. But I’d love to get some of your perspectives in terms of what does innovation and transformation mean to you?
Yeah, definitely. Innovation actually is a very broad word and there are a lot of people who use the word ‘Innovation’ in different contexts.
It could be as simple as doing the same processes that you’re doing, but in a different way, where it becomes faster, more efficient and takes fewer resources.”
That could be categorised as innovation. Another way, for example, you can take it to the other extreme is that corporations are spending billions of dollars. For example, on the iPhone, Apple spent billions doing something called revolutionary innovation, right? So, there are two kinds of innovation, evolutionary and revolutionary. The problem with revolutionary innovation is that it costs a lot of money and the success rate is typically very low and they fail often. But why do people keep doing it? Because there’s a substantial benefit. Look at Apple, for example, if it wasn’t for the iPhone, there would have been a completely different status right now. I think 60% of their revenues just come from the iPhone, which came through a substantial investment in innovation.
When I look at innovation, I also look at the culture. I like to look at how people can do things differently? How can they get out of the box, out of the conventional ways of thinking?
The problem is any way you want to do something new and different, it entails taking risk and people inherently don’t like to take risk.”
They like to be in their comfort zones. So that is a big challenge that everybody is facing when trying to infuse innovation into an organisation. If they ask any Innovation Officer, they would probably look at you and say “It’s one of the most exciting, competing and toughest jobs to deal with.”
As it’s nice, you are always at the forefront of doing new things, but then trying to get people behind your vision and what you see and how to make things much better sometimes it’s not an easy thing. In my opinion, it needs to be like a whole package. Right from the CEO all the way to the employees. Often we see that actually everything stops at that middle management and to be able to be consistent, the CEOs, Executives or the President need to lay a rule that no matter what happens, we have their back, so take risks. Without failure, it’s very difficult to learn. We learn so much by failing, adapting and modifying ourselves and becoming better and more resilient at what we do.
Failing is not a problem. It’s just learning from mistakes and not doing the same failures. It’s what we need to avoid typically. You always need to be taking risk; otherwise, if you’re not taking a risk, that by itself is a risk because they are moving forward. Open innovation is also a nice thing as well as cross-industry innovation and working across different industries. We’re starting to see a lot of synergies now.
Technology before used to actually apply to a single industry, nowadays it doesn’t, it applies to everybody. There’s an incentive for people to work across the line and find synergy and commonality to tackle these issues together as a collective intellect and you come up with a better solution, better for our products.”
It’s interesting when we think about innovation, obviously the iPhone you mentioned is a great example of that. When the initial iPhone model came out, we saw a massive uptake, people jumped on board because the experience difference they were able to get was so huge, people really wanted to buy into that. But then if you think about the ongoing transformation of concepts like the iPhone, it is not necessarily innovation because I think the changes tend to be somewhat less interesting after you have that big innovation. What we tend to see now is that the experience gap is kind of narrowing if that makes sense. So the experience gap was really big and people really wanted to jump on board, but as the transformation takes over from the innovation and the level of change is not as big as it was. What do you think we need to do to keep the interest level up? I’m not just talking about the iPhone specifically. Because we have these big innovation projects and then they become more transformational and interesting. What do we need to do to keep the momentum going to business leaders?
I think adaptability and transformation should be innate to every single corporation, government and academia. The way that we’re starting to see an exponential increase in these emerging technologies, they’re going to be completely disruptive. So unless we compete and start adapting and transforming, we’re going to be probably completely irrelevant. That actually goes back down to the basics. Look at nature, for example, the polar bears, when the climate started getting warmer, they started migrating to the North Pole and eventually they had to adapt. Through genetic mutation one of them changed colour to white and they started going through that line. The ones that adapted and changed the colour and blended into the environment are the only ones that survived. Look at Netflix for example, if you look at the corporate world.
Netflix I see as a prime example because not only they disrupted the industry by changing the paradigm and changing the models but they also kept disrupting themselves as technology and kept evolving.”
This started with creating extended distribution models with the DVDs. Then with the emergence of new technologies, they went ahead, away from that model and started to go in with streaming the South, “Other people will actually catch up to us, let’s do something different.” They became actual movie producers. They’re winning Oscars as one of the best productions right now. Now that the next generation is actually having interactive movies, where people watching the movies can actually control the outcome of the movie. The key is to keep transforming, keep adapting, keep changing everything. Otherwise, it will be completely different.
Another thing I’d like to talk about Matt is looking at the driverless cars, for example. So each technology is coming through. All these emerging technologies are going to create jobs, and disrupt industries completely at the same time.
Look at the driverless car, for example, it is going to create a lot of jobs because people are going to spend more time in cars, going to need communication. There is probably going to be a sense of a mobile office. People are going to need to eat, people are going to need entertainment, people are going to need to map the streets and the path of these cars much more accurately. But at the same time, what is going to be the impact on car manufacturers? I don’t think anybody needs to have two or three cars in the parking garage. I think one car will suffice and eventually going to have a fleet of cars for neighbourhoods and less and fewer cars as we go along. Car manufacturers need to start looking into the impact of this.
Another impact is insurance companies. If it is, for example, a fraction of cars that I need to insure, and these cars almost never get into an accident. What that business model is going to look like in the future. Right? Even something simple as car parks in the cities or hotels, for example, people can afford to live far away now. For example, if I go to a town four hours from here and have a meeting and most of the time I’m just going to end up sleeping there. But if you have a driverless car I’m going to probably come back and sleep in the car, so that’s even going to have an impact on the hotel industry.
Look at one single technology, how it has the capability to stop substantial industries and that’s the key.”
We need to keep adapting, transforming and changing ourselves and business models and see how things are coming across in order to remain relevant. Otherwise, it’s going to be a challenge.
No, that’s a really good point. And also you talk about the concept of failure and innovation and so on, but you’ve also stated that one of the roadblocks to innovation is that too many executives are just not exposed to new ideas. They’re surrounded by light thinking individuals, they have the same sort of meetings, same conversations and they’re really not mixing it up if you’d like, the environment. What do you think of that? You said one of the solutions potentially is diverse thinking. Can you maybe, explain more about that, this diverse thinking concept and then that theory of open innovation as well. How do they kind of work together and what does that mean to you?
Typically we have something called the group thing. For example, if I’m working in the oil and gas industry, I’m working in the car industry, in an IT company, in an airspace company. The environment, the culture, what we’ve learned, it tends to be in a small context, right.
I used to teach design, thinking classes and as part of the design thinking, actually, one segment is brainstorming and coming up with new ideas. So we taught this class at certain companies where it was homogeneous, everybody was from the same corporation. Then a few years ago, I was teaching at the International Space University where we have people from almost 40 different countries and very diverse backgrounds, disciplines, ages and cultures. I compare the ideas that were generated and the solutions between both and it’s like day and night, it’s an order of magnitude difference, so the more diverse the team, the more you’ll be able to pinpoint things that there’s no way we would have thought about it before, so diversity is key.
Diversity is very essential in terms of gender diversity, technological diversity, in terms of the people being engaged in trying to find a solution.”
Diversity definitely is going to be something that’s going to brings a lot of ways of capability and change and be able to help get much more success-
I would think with that as well Omar, with that kind of diversity approach then it would be somewhat challenging from a management point of view as well. It’s great to have all this diverse thinking, different genders, races, ages and demographics, but keeping them somewhat on track is that a challenge or does it not matter?
There are different things. Obviously, when you have a product you need to be on track. But when we’re in the phase of coming up with ideas and solutions, we try to map the strategy, find trends and new ways of doing business. That’s the case when you need to have as diverse a team as possible. But then once you do that, obviously you need to have a focussed team that knows what they’re doing and going through different lives to be able to produce the results. So, I see them as two different components but they need to work hand in hand to get up to produce a synergy between both of them.
Omar Hatamleh is the Executive Director of the Space Studies Program at International Space University. He has led four annual Cross-Industry Innovation Summits in Houston. He was the Chief Innovation Officer, Engineering at NASA. In March, Omar will keynote at ADAPT’s Connected Cloud & DC Edge on NASA innovation lessons.