A Day’s Worth of Ideas on Change and Changing
Imagine a machine that could make an automaker competitive by speeding product development, help a jet engine maker create unique parts for more efficient turbines, and allow a baker to quickly create a picture-perfect 3D replica of a flower made of sugar.
That vision of the next big thing was offered by Avi Reichental, the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of 3D Systems, which is the biggest maker of machines that “print” objects in 3D by adding layer upon layer of precisely shaped material.
“We already have a printer for every job,” he told the audience at d5, a new event held on the Friday after the 2015 Offshore Technology Conference (OTC). The theme of the day was “the next big thing.”
On Reichental’s list of things that 3D printers can create are replicas of body parts and components to repair the International Space Station. Coming soon is a 3D printer “appearing in a neighborhood near you for 8-year-olds to use.”
“Kids really get it,” Reichental said, while describing the reception to a machine his company developed for schools. “They get it in 10 minutes. In 30 minutes, they know more than teachers. In 2 hours, they are doing incredible things.”
For those in the audience born before the creation of the personal computer and who raised children who took easily to digital devices, it was a reminder of how personal and uncomfortable it can be when lagging on the edge of change.
The meeting at the University of Houston offered perspectives from speakers, most of whom are best known for their writing and public speaking skills, about what things are likely to get big and the adjustments big changes bring.
The new OTC offering was introduced by SPE President Helge Hove Haldorsen, who led the effort to create d5. He said innovation is about “making unexpected connections between things.” To explain the power of seeing things differently, he quoted Henry Ford who said about the car: “If I had asked people what they wanted, everyone would have said: a faster horse!”
Ford used assembly line manufacturing to make cars so cheap, it changed travel. Now 3D printers threaten the balance of power in manufacturing by eliminating barriers to making complex things for demanding applications.
The ability of 3D printers to turn a growing array of materials into salable products raises the question, “What does it mean in my business if someone can do it to me? What if I can do it to my competitors?” Reichental said.
The next big thing tends to lead to government reactions. What begins as a fascinating story about a clever entrepreneur with a bold idea grows into a promising organization that creates jobs and wealth, and eventually becomes an institution with labor and environmental issues leading to government investigations, regulation, and sometimes indictments.
For the oil and gas industry, the next big thing has been the enormous growth in production from unconventional formations. A group of little known independent oil companies combined horizontal drilling and fracturing to produce oil from rock that others said was worthless, ultimately changing the balance of power in world oil markets.
For the US, this has become “a game-changing, once-in-a-generation opportunity” said Michael Porter, a business professor at Harvard University who has been studying why the US economy has been sluggish for years. He identified the unconventional energy business as a force to reinvigorate the US economy because “we have a compelling advantage in energy and this is likely to continue.”
But many Americans focus on the oil operations near their home. There are 13 million people in the United States living within a mile of an oil well, Haldorsen said.
Exploration and production companies occupy a contentious part of the country’s political landscape, facing opposition to intensive resource development in some places.
“This [growth] depends on the support of the public. If that fails it undercuts what could be a win for our country,” said Porter. He described the industry’s relationship with those who have raised alarms about its impact on the environment as “a very unproductive and dangerous process.”
“You do not want to have a war with your customers or constituents,” Porter said. “You have to decide if you want to fight at every turn or engage in this discussion.”
That discussion has been made more difficult by what Porter described as the country’s “dysfunctional” political environment, which he said has blocked action to address the country’s pressing economic problems. He displayed a slide with comments about federal fracturing regulations made by government, industry, and environmental leaders. Porter said all the reactions strayed from the facts.
“People who should know better are saying things they know are not true,” he said. The changing media landscape makes it much easier to reach large audiences, with fewer voices challenging the errors. “It is easier to create a myth than before,” Porter said.
The problems that loom largest in the public consciousness are often not the ones that cost the most lives or money.
“We have a lot of things we worry about because they look good on television,” said Bjørn Lomborg, an adjunct professor of business at the University of Copenhagen. His work seeks numbers to help answer the question, “How can donors do the most good?”
The answers Lomborg offers often differ from the common wisdom. Last year, the most publicized infectious threat, Ebola, killed thousands of people in West Africa, while better known diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria gained far less notice while killing millions.
At the top of Lomborg’s list of problems to address is one that most people would never guess: indoor air pollution, which he said causes the premature deaths of more than 4 million people a year worldwide.
Billions of people have little or no access to electric or gas supplies. This leads many to burn whatever they can gather, from scraps of wood to dung, for cooking and heating in poorly ventilated houses. For those living inside, the smoke from those fires is akin to smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes a day.
Aid provided to expand natural gas production can directly address the problem by providing gas-fired heaters and cookers, and help to alleviate the underlying problem, poverty, by promoting economic development.
Low on his list is global warming. Though it is a long-term problem, he said the methods that have been used to address it are not working. Lomborg pointed out that the US has reduced carbon emissions far more than Europe by switching power plants from coal to natural gas rather than making huge investments in renewable energy.
His economic analysis has sparked barbed responses online from those who argue he is underestimating the potential impact of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. When looking at the politics of climate change, Lomborg said, “There is a strong sense it has become an identity issue as much as an argument about the facts.”
The next big thing is a threat to those whose living depends on the status quo. “If the rules of the game change, your opportunity for success just dropped,” said Frans Johansson, whose best-selling books on innovation highlight the power of making creative connections that others do not see.
Some will rise and others fall in the process. For example, the advent of 3D printing could change the balance of power for parts suppliers. A 3D printer on an offshore drilling rig creating replacement parts could cut out suppliers earning large fees to rush order components to remote places, and raise legal questions.
“All the paradigms are challenged at the moment where you can grab anybody’s design and idea and custom manufacture it, change it, and upload into the cloud,” Reichental said. Machines making it easier than ever to copy things created by someone else also represent a challenge for the laws protecting intellectual property.
And yet, while new business leaders like Reichental are publicly talking up their next big thing, the competitors most likely to be hurt by it are slow to react to signs of change.
Often they fail to act because it is hard for leaders of a big business to see a little startup based on unproven new ideas as a threat, said Lisa Bodell, an author of books that address managing change and CEO of the consulting firm futurethink. Even as the competition is growing, those executives think, “We have so much stuff, and we are a big great brand; we can ride this out for a while.” Such organizations cultivate managers who she said often become “professional skeptics who can think of reasons not to act.”
The psychology that blinds managers to dangers in plain sight was described by Michael Bloomfield, a former US astronaut who also managed spaceflight operations and investigated the 2003 crash of the Columbia space shuttle.
While the circumstances of theColumbia crash (and the Challengercrash in 1986) were different, he said, “We knew about both problems.” These flaws were not addressed because they had been repeatedly noticed without serious consequences.
“As the deviant behavior is repeated without catastrophic results, it becomes the social norm of the organization,” said Bloomfield, vice president and general manager of Oceaneering Space Systems.
And successfully doing something incredibly difficult can breed overconfidence. Based on what was learned from those crashes, Bloomfield said, “The first rule was that we are not as smart as we think we are.”
Leaders also must recognize the limit of what can be accomplished by giving orders. As an investor, Juan Enriquez is backing companies that are researching ways to create artificial life forms. He is the managing director of Excel Venture Management, whose investments include a company creating new breeds of algae that can be converted into motor fuel. Even with the rise of genetic engineering, the ability of people to ask and answer questions remains critical to success.
Reichental calls 3D printer customers “creators.” Positive change requires contributions from every worker, said Mike Abrashoff, a former US Navy commander known for his books about turning the worst ship in the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet into its best.
His turnaround effort began with meeting each crew member. “I looked into their eyes to tell them what we are about,” he said. He asked them about their background and goals, and for ideas on how to do things better. He promptly acted to implement good ideas.
Feedback from sailors who said their goal was to go to college with financial aid from the Navy led to a program to help them take the standardized college entrance exam. A suggestion for stainless steel bolts to reduce corrosion sharply reduced the painting required on the vessel.
But workers have their limits. Leaders eager to do something new often forget that for their staff, change means “taking on more work, and ‘we have a lot of work to do,’” Bodell said. Embracing the next big thing requires “getting rid of things that are not working to make room for change,” she said.
The next big thing in worker engagement may embrace an activity considered a complete waste of work time: the billions of hours spent playing video games. Studies of the brains of the players of multiplayer computer games show they are motivated and engaged in ways most workers are not now, said Jane McGonigal, a writer who is also the director of games research and development at the Institute of the Future, a research group in Palo Alto, California. She sees “a tremendous opportunity to siphon off a small slice of these hours for solving real problems.”
Multiplayer games have been used to simulate how a brain area would react to a real-life large-scale fuel shortage. A government-created simulation played by 1 million people delivered results that were in line with actual results gathered during a fuel shortage in Europe.
“Games are the most elevated form of investigation,” she said, adding that “we can bring that collective investigation method to any problem we want.”
For Further Reading
A sample of books written by d5 speakers. Other lectures by most of these speakers can be found online.
Mike Abrashoff, It’s Your Ship, Grand Central Publishing
Lisa Bodell, Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution, Bibliomotion
Juan Enriquez, Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth, Current
Frans Johansson, The Medici Effect, Harvard Business Review Press
Bjørn Lomborg, Cool It, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Penguin Publishing Group
Michael Porter, Competitive Strategy, Free Press
A Day’s Worth of Ideas on Change and Changing
Stephen Rassenfoss, JPT Emerging Technology Senior Editor
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20 May 2020