With significant incumbent benefits and strict safety regulations, the aviation industry can sometimes present its engineers with a limited scope for innovation. On this episode of Mastering Innovation on Sirius XM Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, guest Dr. Brian Tillotson of Boeing explains how the company continues to innovate despite various obstacles.
Tillotson shares how the industry is now exploring other methods of transportation, sources of power, and collaborations across the supply chain. He ultimately emphasizes the importance of people: working together to introduce new ideas that make the world a better place. Tillotson also reflects on how his own ventures into writing science fiction have played a role in his team’s innovation process.
A lightly edited transcript follows. Listen to more episodes here.
Saikat Chaudhuri: Hello and welcome. You’re listening to Mastering Innovation, our new show here on SiriusXM Business Radio powered by the Wharton School. I’m your host, Saikat Chaudhuri, Executive Director of a Mack Institute for Innovation Management here at Wharton, and I’m thrilled to be joined by my co-host and colleague, Harbir Singh, Professor of Management and Co-director of the Mack Institute.
Coming up in just a few minutes, we’ll be joined by Dr. Brian Tillotson, a Senior Technical fellow at Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company and leading manufacturer of commercial jetliners, as well as defense space and security systems. Before that, what we want to do is give you a brief introduction to our show, as well as chat about some current developments that are taking place.
Innovation at the Mack Institute and across the Globe
Our show, Mastering Innovation, is about how established organizations foster the kind of innovation that keeps them going year after year. There are firms which are subject to such disruptive forces that succumb to those, but others who survive. We focus on that – both on research as well as working with our industry partners. In this show, you’ll hear from academics. You’ll hear from industry partners, corporate executives, as well as our students, as we go through some important issues surrounding the strategy and organization of dealing with innovation and remaining innovative over time.
What we want to begin with is some of our own work recently. The Mack Institute, as you might know, is actually global, both in its research project scope, but also in activities with corporate partners. Recently, we held an event in Mumbai where we included round-table style discussions with leading corporate partners and other companies. Some of the firms that were included in the Mumbai event included [Mack Institute corporate partners] Tata as well as the State Bank of India locally, but also the Indian subsidiaries of companies that are from the U.S. such as Verizon, FedEx, CA Technologies, and others who have innovation centers in India. Harbir, I found this to be an extremely insightful event. You and I were both there leading these roundtable discussions. What did you take away from it?
Harbir Singh: In the Japan event, what was fascinating was that Japan is undergoing a resurgence. The resurgence is driven by digital-based technologies and services. There was a deep interest in your discussion on digital technologies and where they are headed, and also, some very interesting ideas on what Japanese companies are doing today. Our stereotypical view of Japan of being lean manufacturing lead is actually a little bit outdated.
What was fascinating about the Indian setting was that India is often seen as a hub for service technology as lower-end business process outsourcing, but what we saw with FedEx, in particular, was a technology center that is trying to develop logistical models (not just for India, but for the world) and is trying to help FedEx extend its reach beyond the U.S. in many parts of Asia, where you have different maps, different terrain, different logistical challenges.
Similarly, Verizon had a center that was doing what might be medium in technology, but today is developing the bots that we might be needing. As you know, if you have Fios, you have a very non-intuitive navigation. What Verizon is doing, partly through the Indian center, is to develop [chat]bots that make it easier for more question-and-answer format. The main takeaway is that foreign operations are riding up the value chain into more sophisticated activities. It speaks to absorptive capacity. Units, wherever they are – can they absorb technology fast enough to get to state of the art and beyond?
“Innovation today is not just about technology. It’s about the business model surrounding the technology.” – Harbir Singh
Chaudhuri: Fascinating. Yes, building on your points, Harbir, what was notable in Japan is even though sometimes even the Japanese companies think that they’re behind, they’re not. Something like navigating digital disruption is a common challenge and the transformation is very difficult for firms around the world. These firms are in the midst of it just like the firms here. I suppose innovation is a very common language, and technology in particular as well.
I like your thoughts on the India event. The moving of the value chain is not an easy phenomenon, but it’s happening. As you were saying in particular in the Verizon case, there’s a lot of interaction required between the home base, here in the U.S., and between the Indian operation as well, so they can work seamlessly. It’s almost like an extended enterprise. That’s a fascinating part of how people are innovating. Sometimes we see more independent activities, which are for localization or regional purposes, and other times it’s a much closer knit operation that we see.
Singh: Right. Of course, today’s news includes Amazon as a leader. There’s a story in The Wall Street Journal that talks about Amazon growing ninefold in the last ten years with its overall global sales, but it also talks about different outcomes. In India, they are actually leading. They have disrupted the Indian online retailers quite a bit. But in China, they have had very little traction versus Alibaba. Innovation today is not just about technology. It’s about the business model surrounding the technology. It’s also about the degree of competition from local players. All said and done, what we see is the U.S. still leads in many of the digital technologies, but these technologies are a wave that are inundating the world. It requires adjustment to different markets.
Chaudhuri: Absolutely. In that Amazon story, what was fascinating is the investment that Amazon is making in the U.S. and also how it’s developing more physical infrastructure, even as it promotes its digital infrastructure. That’s also quite a development and a shift that we see.
Singh: It’s a U-turn. Amazon was supposed to be the online retailer, and now they are hiring tens of thousands of people for warehouses. They bought Whole Foods. One way of thinking about this is: no one can stand still. As a center for innovation, the Mack Institute really talks about that. You have to balance exploring new businesses with exploiting what you’re good at. The percentage of resources spent on exploration is actually higher than what most people realize.
Chaudhuri: Yes. In fact, if you do stand still and keep promoting your existing products, services, and business models over time, what’ll end up happening to you is: you will succumb to that, at some point, and the competition, because the competition doesn’t stand still. Even if a firm is viewed as a dominating number one player at any point in time, that’s never the case.
Singh: Right. When you think about Blockbuster and CompUSA, and what happened to those companies, and Netflix being able to ride the next wave… The landscape is littered by companies that thought that they were looking for efficiency and did not need to find the next business model.
“No one can stand still…You have to balance exploring new businesses with exploiting what you’re good at.” – Harbir Singh
Chaudhuri: One thing I’m curious about before we turn to our guest is, as we see this global innovation happening, and as costs also rise, but we access expertise to go abroad and have these centers, what does that imply? It’s not so easy. Sourcing innovation from around the world is no longer a low-end endeavor or a cost-reduction endeavor, but something which helps you to access expertise and maybe get something on the revenue side. How do you see that?
Singh: Well, IBM is a very interesting case in point. They actually went to other parts of the world to sell services, but then they realized they had to have engineers in those places. IBM has become a very global work force as a result. They have been responding to these opportunities. It’s a differentiated labor market. In countries that produce many engineers like China and India, you can have local talent. Countries that don’t, then, are mostly a destination for services. It requires a degree of sophistication about labor markets that people just as little as 10 years ago did not have.
Chaudhuri: Absolutely, and the cost-benefit equation certainly changes. It’s no longer about “You have to think about profit as revenue minus costs.” If you’re not getting benefits on the revenue side, then the cost side alone won’t carry these endeavors.
Singh: Right. Back to Verizon that you talked about, what they’re facing is, how can they put more value-added services into their model? Voice and data are both commoditizing, and many players are going to be offering that. What are the value-added services they need to have? Again, what’s fascinating is that many of the algorithms are coming from different parts of the world. They’re actually doing many things right, in many ways. Of course, we have to stay tuned.
Chaudhuri: Absolutely. There are some exciting times ahead, and that will also be the case in our discussion that we have planned for today.
Innovation at Boeing
We are thrilled to welcome to the show, Dr. Brian Tillotson, who joins us on the line. As mentioned earlier, Brian is a Boeing Senior Technical fellow and the company’s Enterprise Domain Leader for Platform Systems and Subsystems, one of Boeing’s eight focused technology domains that comprise the company’s enterprise technology strategy. He also serves as chief engineer for Systems Technology within Boeing Research and Technology and holds more than 90 patents in aerospace, being one of Boeing’s most prolific inventors. He also teaches Technical Development courses in mentoring, leadership, and systems engineering. Outside of Boeing, believe it or not, he has published science fiction — perhaps that makes sense — but poetry as well. Brian, welcome to the show, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Brian Tillotson: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Chaudhuri: We’re, of course, intrigued by your background. But first of all, tell us, what does it mean to be a senior technical fellow at Boeing? What is the kind of work that you do and the projects that you’re working on?
Tillotson: Boeing has a workforce of about 55,000 scientists and engineers. Some are new with their jobs. Some have been around a while. We select within those a few that have done pretty well, showing technical mastery of their subjects and also being good at innovation and creativity, as well as mentoring, leadership, and things like that. We put them in what we call the technical fellowship, so a senior tech fellow is at the top rank in that group. There’s about 60 of us out of the workforce. It’s a pretty great opportunity. It’s like raising your hand for the teacher to call on you for all the really hard problems, which I like.
Then, in my job. When the company was doing an experiment three years ago, they said, “Let’s see if these guys can do something besides engineering.” They made me an Enterprise Domain Leader, as you mentioned. In that job, I look across all of Boeing’s business units. We have three big ones and one smaller one, looking at the R&D related, to mostly electronics and electrical systems. I try to make sure that’s working efficiently. I might say, “Oh, well, the guys in Philadelphia doing this thing for helicopters probably ought to talk to the folks in El Segundo working on satellites because they have a lot of commonality.” I try to get that lined up. Or, if I noticed there are gaps that are not being plugged, I try to make sure somebody jumps on those. It’s a real feast of technical work, a chance to meet a lot of smart folks.
Chaudhuri: Fascinating. What are the coolest projects that you’re working on right now?
Tillotson: Oh, boy. We have a lot. I’m looking at one we rolled out yesterday as being one of the coolest. We know that electricity is going to be more important for aircraft in the near future. A lot of companies are looking at that. Yesterday, Boeing rolled out an electric octocopter, a helicopter with eight blades. It’s about the right size to carry one or two people over the distance you would look at for an urban commute. That’s really going to transform aviation in a lot of ways. It’s the potential of something like that: change what it means to have an air vehicle, change the way those are owned and operated, change the way the airspace is used. That’s probably the most exciting this week.
Changes in the Aviation Industry
Chaudhuri: It does sound pretty interesting. I can’t help but ask when you talk about changes in how we think about air transport and expand that broadly. We have a lot of companies out there, including SpaceX. We have endeavors such as Hyperloop as well, which promise to revolutionize this form of transportation. Any thoughts on that?
Tillotson: It’s a really exciting time, precisely for the reasons you mentioned. You look at what SpaceX is doing. They get a lot of press. That’s nice incremental work. They’ve got a rocket that’s a little more reusable than the Space Shuttle. Getting anything into orbit is hard, so my hat’s off to them for that. Hyperloop: it’s really interesting thinking about something like that, or autonomous cars or self-driving cars. You’ll have automobiles, or other forms of ground transportation, getting more comfortable and easy for people to use over distances that, these days, are covered by short range aviation. For a few hundred miles, you might say, “I’ll just let my car drive. I can read a book. I’ll take the Hyperloop.” On the other hand, you see things like the new types of aviation that I talked about, moving that to shorter and shorter distances. Places where, in the past, aviation and ground transportation stayed out of each other’s way, they’re going to start competing with each other head-to-head. I don’t know yet how that’ll go. Obviously, I’d love to see aviation win all those battles, but I think that’s not realistic. But that’s what I see. It’s a time of turbulence where, even for a little while, we won’t be able to say what’s aviation and what’s some other form of transportation. Those different industries are going to collide in ways that are really unpredictable right now.
“We won’t be able to say what’s aviation and what’s some other form of transportation. Those different industries are going to collide in ways that are really unpredictable right now.” – Brian Tillotson
A Systematic Approach
Singh: That’s really fascinating, Brian. I had a question around the whole issue systemic views of these technologies. You have Hyperloop, you have the octocopter, and so on. What we see in many parts of the world is the systemic impact, even of new transportation. Do you think people will become better at it? Because this is a hard one. First of all, you have to know which technology wins. Then, you have to start thinking about the systemic impact, but they seem to be so intertwined. I saw you had done a variety of projects, including architecture development, so you may have a feel for this.
Tillotson: No, that’s exactly right. People miss that a lot when they look at, certainly, the aviation parts of that. Like I said, there’s a lot of companies around the world that are saying, “Hey, we’re going to build this.” For example, urban transport systems fly you from one end of a city to another. If there’s only one of those flying in a city, or maybe a dozen, we could do that with the infrastructure we have today. But if you look at, for example, how air traffic control works… Right now, you have to file a flight plan. You talk to a human being before you take off, talk to one before you land. We just cannot make that system work if you’ve got, say 10,000 air vehicles, over a city the size of Seattle or Shanghai. We have to be able to automate that, so that becomes part of the infrastructure. We have to think about, if those are electric vehicles, where do you get the power for them?
Tillotson: Right now, we have trucks full of petroleum driving into an airport or driving to gas stations where your fuel up your car. Now, we have electric power going to different places, which, by the way, is going to be a big problem for electric cars as well. How do we provide that infrastructure? How do we get people to and from, on the ground, wherever they’re going with aviation? Or, you look at something like Hyperloop. That’s going to be in a station somewhere. It’s probably not going to come to your neighborhood, so you have to drive somewhere. Do you have parking for that? Well, not right now. You have to knock down a neighborhood to do it. There’s, as you say, a lot of systemic issues. We see a lot of things where regulators – who, by the way, are really smart, hardworking people – just like the rest of us, they have to learn the new technologies and understand their impacts. We, at Boeing, are working not only on the technology side, which is mostly in my job jar, but working with our regulatory community to say, “Here are some concepts we’re looking at. How would you respond to that? What would you need to see from us, or from other players in the industry, to make that comfortable?” so they can sign off and say, “Yes, we trust that the flying public is going to be safe with this big, complicated, new system.” There’s a lot of work to be done there.
Singh: Speaking briefly about electric, which I think is fascinating, you mentioned Shanghai. China has adopted a policy for moving to electric faster than any other place in the world in the automobile sector. There are many interesting angles to that. One of them is availability of batteries, like you said. From a systemic point of view, I wonder about disposal of used batteries, too. I’m sure that’s been thought about, but when there’s a mass migration to electric cars, this becomes a problem people have not thought about on that scale before.
Tillotson: I think that’s right. I can’t speak for the folks doing electric cars. I know on our side, again, on the aviation side, one of the things that we’ve had to learn to think about in the last couple decades, that we did not previously, was, how do you throw away an airplane? You buy a 787. It’ll last you 20 or 30 years, maybe longer, but then you’re going to get rid of it. We’ve got a lot of new materials in there in the past. It was aluminum. Now we have more composites. We’ve had frankly a lot of PhDs working on questions of: how do we break down those things? How do we safely discard them or repurpose them? As we look at getting more advanced batteries in our aircraft – and they’re pretty similar to the ones that are in cars – we do have folks looking at how do you get rid of those or how do you clean up those chemicals and reuse them, which I think is a direction that the industry is starting to go in, but we don’t yet have great answers there as near as I can tell.
Moore’s Law in Aviation?
Singh: Battery technology has undergone substantial innovation in a short period of time in terms of capacity and size-to-delivery ratio of power. Will something like Moore’s Law apply? Moore’s Law applies to semiconductors, but that’s for various reasons where we could predict the way. I’m an electrical engineer, so I know a little bit about this. You could predict the way the substrate would be handled through the masking process, and the optical, cameras and so on. But with batteries, it’s a whole different proposition. Are people betting on a rate of innovation that may or may not be there?
Tillotson: We do see some of that. I’ll come back to that point. Your observation about Moore’s Law is right on. There are reasons that semiconductors were able to progress at that astonishing rate, doubling in the number of transistors on a wafer about every two years. Partly, it was that building better computers lets you design a better chip that goes into a better computer.
Tillotson: The fundamental limit on what you can do with electronics is the size of the atom. When we started with transistors, there were gigantic things, relatively speaking. We had a lot of atoms we could still take out of them, although we are getting close to the limit there. We’re starting to see some running out of steam in electronics in some areas. With batteries, your limit is more what kinds of atoms are in the universe. You look at the periodic table, and there’s only certain things there. There are limits to how much energy you can get from chemical reactions. Certainly, there’s still plenty of room to improve on a battery. There are starting to be magnesium ion batteries that potentially will have maybe four times better energy density than the lithium-ion batteries we have now.
“The fundamental limit on what you can do with electronics is the size of the atom. With batteries, your limit is more what kinds of atoms are in the universe.” – Brian Tillotson
Singh: I see. That’s fascinating.
Tillotson: For flight, that’s barely enough. Lithium-ion batteries are not as capable as we’d like. Magnesium ion batteries will get you in a ballpark. But, the problem with the battery, especially in a business where you have to fly, so you worry about weight all the time, is you have both the oxidizer and the reactant, the fuel. They’re both carried on board all the time, and you carry them throughout the flight. You’re carrying the weight of both sides of the reaction. The thing that makes petroleum, or other things like that, so terrific as a fuel is, you’re only carrying the one side of the reaction. The oxygen comes from the air, and after the reaction is done, you don’t have to carry the waste product either.
Singh: Interesting. That’s right.
Tillotson: People are starting to worry about the CO2, so we’re worrying about that too. But, there’s that fundamental difference in the physics and chemistry of those reactions, and the fact that with a battery, you carry it all the time. That’s really going to put a crimp in this. I don’t think we will ever see a battery-powered airplane that flies across the Pacific Ocean. There just is not enough energy that you can jam into a box like a battery. You’d have to burn. You have to rely on the oxygen in the air or you just can’t get the energy.
Chaudhuri: Well, Brian, hopefully, you’ll be able to come up with some of the solutions because I was hoping to fly across the Pacific, and much faster, too, in some sort of a battery-powered aircraft. But, fascinating. Clearly the innovation you describe is very complex. It’s systemic. There’s no room for beta versions, as you might have in a piece of software where you can get feedback and just try different things. This has to be safe. It has to fly. It has to be reliable. That’s why you also have the regulatory arrangements in place. What impact does that have on how you set up managing innovation? You had alluded to this right at the beginning, when I asked you about your work that you coordinate. You work with people in different places. You do a lot of matching, in addition to helping with the problem-solving. How is it set up?
Tillotson: Oh, great question. Let me start by saying a little more about the regulatory factors and the safety. Really, the safety is the important thing. The regulation is just how it’s manifested and how that affects us. Let’s say we come up with a new gizmo that we want to put on an airplane. We know that there might be five different kinds of gizmos that we want to put on your plane. But, every one of them, if we want to get it there, is going to go through a process of a few years of working with our regulators doing analysis and tests to prove that it is safe, to at least a one in a billion, maybe better, chance of ever causing an injury. That’s just a lot of time and money that goes into verifying the safety of any new thing that goes on an airplane. If we have five ideas for a way to get 1% better fuel efficiency, we spend quite a bit of time up front figuring out which one is really going to be the best, and then we’ll just develop that one. We will not develop the other four, because “develop,” for us, means spending a lot of time and money to get them certified, so we just don’t. We have to put our bets on one big winner. We ignore the others or we wait until technology matures a lot farther before we’ll go. It slows us down and makes us really careful in where we put our bets.
“We have to put our bets on one big winner. It slows us down and makes us really careful in where we put our bets.” – Brian Tillotson
Then, once we’ve done that, we really like to reuse that technology in later versions of the same product. Take our 787 Dreamliner. It’s certainly well-known public knowledge that we had some challenges getting the first version out the door. We’ve got those pretty well solved, and so now, for each new version of that, like the 787-10, we try to reuse as much of that technology as we can. We’re not constantly looking for new features to add or little things that are going to give us a competitive advantage because any of those changes have to be certified again. We tend to look for the big bets, but it makes us stay out of little incremental things in most cases.
Now, similarly in the military and defense side, their certification framework is different, but it’s about the same in effect. When we put a serviceman or servicewoman in one of our aircrafts, the only thing that should hurt them is enemy action. The aircraft itself should not. The Air Force and the Navy have their own approaches to that. Again, once we get something certified, we are reluctant to replace it unless there is a huge performance benefit. That guides a lot of our thinking. We just have to be a lot more careful. We cannot shoot from the hip and offer a new product to say, “Oh, that didn’t pan out. We’ll go back the other way.” In some ways, it’s more like the drug discovery business: very large investment to bring something to market. It limits the number of chances you can take.
Chaudhuri: No, that makes sense. There are a lot of industries like that, where there’s uncertainty, long time frames, and huge capital investments. Oil and gas is another one.
Research and Development
Singh: Brian, I was really fascinated by your comment about a parallel industry being drug discovery in the high R&D cost, the long gestation period, and payoffs way in the future. To me, one interesting issue with the pharmaceutical industry is the rise of open innovation where they’re going with a lot of research being done by partner companies and through calls for proposals for particular projects. How do you see the role of open innovation or something like that in aerospace?
Tillotson: We’re doing similar things. We have tried to rely more on our supplier base rather than figuring out ourselves exactly what we need. We’ll put a box around it with specifications and say, “Hey, anybody who’s got one of these, we’re looking,” and they’ll bring it in. We’ve done more to work with foreign governments that want to sponsor R&D to get them in the aviation industry. So, same sort of thing. We’ll go and, for example, talk to a group from England or India and say, “Here’s the kind of technology we’re looking for.” Then, maybe half a dozen of their companies will go off with a little bit of government help, come up with things that might work for us, and then we’ll pick a couple and say, “Those are pretty close.” At that point, we’ve started having a relationship with them. We’re doing a similar thing.
Singh: Another thought was: going back 15 to 20 years, we had AT&T with Bell Labs. We had IBM with Major Research Facilities. IBM still does have that in the mainframe computing area, of the supercomputer area. But what’s fascinating about Boeing is that you have managed to go after that large-scale research, including technology that perhaps come out way in the future. How do you see that? I suppose the explanation for AT&T, for example, scaling back their research effort, was that revenue had to justify the research. Fundamental research fell by the wayside. What do you see with Boeing in that regard?
Tillotson: Well, we stay out of the fundamental research business. We do pretty much applied things. We’ve teamed with universities to keep up with what are the new fundamental things that might be turned into technologies. When that looks promising, then we’ll have folks in what’s called Boeing Research and Technology, which is the small business unit that I actually belong to. We’ll try some high-risk R&D to see: can we make a system that works with that? Not one that we could certify and put on an airplane, but just show, “Yeah, this actually works.” We take the risk out. When it’s pretty far down the road, we then hand that technology to the business units, commercial airplanes, or defense.
Chaudhuri: I see.
Tillotson: They’ll actually start planning on putting it into their products. Now, we don’t just hand that off. We used to do that, and it didn’t work very well. Now, we’ll send some engineers with it. In fact, usually, we started involving some folks from the business units in the R&D and later stages before we do the handoff. We try to reduce those stumbles and have really successful transitions. But it’s hard. It’s a tough balance.
The Culture at Boeing
Chaudhuri: I know inter-organizational relationships are, of course, always very difficult, but they’re necessary, like you said, because you also want to spread the risk. Now, continuing on the theme of open innovation, recently Boeing announced that they’re working on a new venture capital unit. You have that called the HorizonX. Do you interface with that? Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Tillotson: That’s been an exciting new part of the job for me. Those guys got started about six months ago. They were a remedy for the mindset that you get into when you’re in this heavily-regulated environment. We had smart engineers at the company, but they’ve mentally boxed themselves into thinking, “Well, I can only do this narrow range of things because that’s what’s certified.” So, one, we’re trying to help them think more broadly. That’s good. But HorizonX is not constrained that way. They’ll go out and make an investment in a small company that’s got a lot more room to maneuver or they will, for example, sponsor the octocopter I mentioned that came out of their shop, saying, “Let’s do something that’s just completely different.” They’ll grab some of the technical talent from other parts of the company. Pull them in. They don’t have engineering heads to worry about. They just grab us when they need us and send us back home when they’re done. That’s a much more nimble outfit. They work like DARPA does within the Department of Defense — very quick.
Chaudhuri: You mentioned a mindset shift. That’s one of the things which is, perhaps, the hardest, especially for leaders in an industry and for companies that have been around for a long time doing what they do very, very well. Do you see the culture having to change at Boeing in order to stay on the cutting edge and make the transformations that are necessary, especially as you mentioned earlier that we have to think about this in the context of mobility at large? We’re thinking about mobility solutions now, not, per se, one domain or the other.
Tillotson: Our relatively new CEO, Dennis Muhlenberg, gets that message really clearly. He’s doing a lot to try to change our culture – trying to make us a little less bureaucratic internally. We’re still producing safe airplanes and making money, but using more judgment and less reliance on procedure, which I think is really good. With our internal communications, the company is doing more to highlight the highly innovative things that we’re doing just to remind people that you work for a company, that, yes, produces extremely reliable products, but you also work for a company that put human beings on the moon. It’s going to put human beings on Mars, and it’s doing all these other exciting things. It gets the other parts of their brains opened up, so they can contribute those great ideas and not have to be part of the R&D team to do it.
“The company is doing more to highlight the highly innovative things that we’re doing just to remind people that…you work for a company that put human beings on the moon.” – Brian Tillotson
Chaudhuri: How do you increase collaboration across the company, then, if you’re in these different divisions in areas?
Tillotson: My drive, partly, is: I just set up meetings. I meet people in different places. I say, “You three guys ought to know each other. Here’s a telecom. I’m going to introduce you,” and they start talking. They may be engineers working in their cubicles, they may be managers, they may be executives, but the other domain leaders and I facilitate those conversations. We have an internal technical conference every year. It’s actually sponsored by the technical fellowship, but any of our employees can come. It’s a great place for them to learn other things happening in the company. It’s just a blast to walk down the hall at that, and you’ll see somebody who didn’t even know that we’re in some other business. They’ll just be talking frantically to each other in the hallway and exchanging business cards. So, it works, but it’s never finished. We always have to keep pushing on that.
Singh: Brian, one of the interesting questions I was thinking about was the challenges that you have faced in innovating. What is the biggest epiphany that you had as you navigated this very exciting and complex domain?
Tillotson: Well, let me start with the biggest epiphany. It was learning that it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” Our educational system trains technical people, in particular, to think we’ve got to come up with the answer ourselves. Boy, we’re in a complex business, and I can’t know everything. Nobody in the company can know everything. To get over that thinking, I had to say, “Why don’t you tell me how that works?” and guess what? People will. When they do that, then I can help them make connections to other parts of the company, or I can help them improve it. That was the big one. It doesn’t hurt to say “I don’t know.” Then they’ll tell me, then I do know.
Singh: That’s fascinating. As academics, we have exactly that epiphany. You are learning as well that, in fact, the most important issue is to have some idea what you don’t know because there’s a tendency to believe we’ve worked a lot on this for a long time so we have many answers. The other point that I thought was interesting is in Silicon Valley, which is not far from where you are in Seattle, the big word is disruption, right? Disruption used to be seen as negative, in pure English language terms, but disruption has become the thing to do. I don’t see that much disruption in your industry, at least in terms of the actual craft, but there may be disruptions of other sorts. Any thoughts on that? For example, communication technologies or something like that. Obviously the aircraft is not going to be that continuous for a long, long time. Related to that, most companies have not been able to survive multiple generations of technology, whereas Boeing has been extraordinarily good at that.
“The most important issue is to have some idea what you don’t know.” – Harbir Singh
Competition in the Aviation Industry
Tillotson: Boeing has been blessed with, honestly, an extraordinary run of good top leadership. We’ve had a few stumbles, but by and large, we have selected leaders who do not get too full of themselves. They believe that competition can happen to them and whack them if they’re not careful. They just work really hard. You just can’t get complacent. I will say, to some extent, it’s our own fault that Airbus is out there and that SpaceX is eating into the launch business because in those two areas, we took our foot off the gas. We got a little too comfortable, so now we’re having to fight back. Eternal vigilance is what it takes to stay on top. Other people are always gunning for the top guy, and it happens to us. We just have to stay awake.
Singh: Exactly. In fact, as you were answering, I was thinking that your batting average is very good, but yet, of course, there will be examples of competitors taking advantage of opportunity at a different rate.
Tillotson: Yes. I will mention, you can say Boeing is a winner. We are now a composite company. We’ve merged with or acquired a lot of others companies that were doing okay, but not quite as well as the Boeing Company. McDonnell Douglas merged with us some years ago. They were a great company, but losing out in commercial airlines, so they merged with us. Hughes Aircraft used to be a real strong player, and fell back a little bit. We acquired them and made them part of our team so that we kept our strength up by working with folks that had not been competing quite as effectively. We brought them in and made them part of a real strong team together, frankly doing things that we could not have done ourselves and they could not have done themselves, but together we can stay on top.
Inspiration from Science Fiction
Chaudhuri: Brian, one thing we are intrigued by and cannot help but ask as we near the close: you write science fiction as well as poetry. Tell us a little bit about that endeavor.
Tillotson: Sure. I blame one of my good English teachers in high school who got me interested in writing short stories. I always thought that would be really boring, and then she made me do one. It actually turned out okay, and I thought, “That’s fun.” Thirty years later, I decided to try it as a hobby. Interesting experience. I’ve heard this from other writers: putting together a story feels like engineering. It all has to work together – the characters, the plot, the setting. What’s going on in my head feels a lot like engineering.
What’s fun and what makes it a great overlap with the job is there are things that we cannot yet do at Boeing, but we can imagine someday we will. I can take those and make a pretty good science fiction story out of it.
Tillotson: What surprised me were things coming the other way, so I try to write near-future science fiction. I’m always asking myself, “How do I make things harder for my characters?” That means I have to generate problems. In a couple of cases, I’ve thought of things that some of our engineers had not yet thought of that might be problems. We’ve actually done a little bit of work internally to make sure that we’re okay on those. It’s been an interesting flow going both ways.
Singh: As you think about the domain of innovation, that’s a fascinating point, connecting the way fiction works in terms of different pieces coming together and engineering innovation. If you were advising a young person who is starting to commit themselves to a career in innovation, – of course, that’s an exciting thing to do – what’s a common misconception people have that you think would help them to know in advance?
The Human Element of Innovation
Tillotson: A lot of people think innovation is about the creativity, and I actually wrote about this in a LinkedIn article recently. When young engineers approached me, I said, “Sure, creativity is good, and it’s learnable. You can learn that, but you also need curiosity.” You have to be willing to learn about new things. In fact, you have to go looking for new things to learn. You have to like to collaborate. Certainly in an industry like ours, nothing comes to fruition without working with lots of other people.
“Creativity is good, but you also need curiosity. You have to be willing to learn about new things. In fact, you have to go looking for new things to learn.” – Brian Tillotson
Communication is key, both being able to articulate your own ideas whether speaking or writing or using body language or drawing pictures, and asking really good questions, then asking them over and over in different ways until you get the information you need or you learn what the thing is. Then, I tell folks that they ought to have compassion. Innovation is hard. Bringing new things into the world is difficult. It takes a long time. Sometimes you fall on your face. We need leaders who can lead innovation, and once in a while they say, “Let me give you a hand up. I know you’re disappointed. I know you’re discouraged. I know you’ve been working an awful lot of hours to try to make this thing work, and it’s not working yet.” You have to be able to take care of people when they’re down. As for you, you get to see that look on their face when you bring this new thing into the world and make the world a better place. But you have to take care of the people on the way.
Singh: It’s about the whole person, is what you’re saying. It’s not just about the engineering piece or the creativity piece. That’s really fascinating. If people knew that early in their careers, it would make their path a lot easier.
Tillotson: I think that’s right.
Chaudhuri: Thanks, Brian, not only for your insights on technology and innovation in aerospace, but also for some of those life lessons, which our listeners will also appreciate. Thanks for joining us on the show today. How can listeners find out more about Boeing and the work that you’re doing? You mentioned your LinkedIn, and we also know that there’s @Boeing, which is on Twitter. Any other place where we can read about you, and perhaps, you know, that writing that you’ve done?
Tillotson: Well, the company has a website: boeing.com. Within it, we have a little pointer on there to a magazine called “Innovation Quarterly” where we talk about some of the interesting new ideas we’re working on from other people like me in many cases.
Chaudhuri: Wonderful. Thank you very much. Hope to talk to you again sometime soon.
Tillotson: A great pleasure. Thanks, you all.
Chaudhuri: All right. Harbir, that was fascinating. We learned so much about many things that I didn’t even expect from that conversation. What did you take away from this discussion?
Singh: The biggest thing was this idea of the industry being quite different from many others, in the sense that the certification piece is something that makes it unique. Everything has to be tested over a very long cycle. I’m wondering whether that may be one of the reasons why changes in leadership are difficult in the industry, that there is an incumbent benefit because the certification is based upon the dominant technologies. That’s one.
Then, strategy is always about trade-offs. The trade-off is that you need to innovate constantly in terms more sophisticated R&D, not basic research, but the highest end of applied research. The examples that Brian gave were really interesting. Airbus getting ahead in some areas, SpaceX getting ahead in some areas. Maybe the ferment that we see in many industries also applies in aerospace. It’s just that the leaders have innovated consistently and have managed to retain their position.
Chaudhuri: It’s particularly hard based on what you were observing – that we have to make bets for the long run, and then we use that technology. It’s so difficult to do that. For me, it was not surprising that in one generation, perhaps Airbus or others take a lead. But the key is, like you said, to adapt and bounce back again and make those investments for the future.
Singh: The other thing I found fascinating was, there may be five technologies, but they’ll pick one and go after that. That’s really fascinating. Clearly, this must have been in their DNA a long time ago. The idea is that they are taking risk because they’re picking the one they think they can deliver all the way to certification. The path not traveled could very well come back to hurt them.
The third point I thought that was really interesting is the blending of engineering and business. There is a lot of, “It’s about engineering. It’s about technology,” but when he began talking about success factors, he said it’s about the whole person. Similarly, for the company, it’s not just the engineering. It’s not just the technology. It’s not even just the product. It is the usability of the product and the degree to which different clients see value on a gigantic project. The 787 is a gigantic project.
“It’s not just the engineering. It’s not just the technology. It’s not even just the product. It is the usability of the produce and the degree to which different clients see value.” – Harbir Singh
Chaudhuri: Not only are there so many coordination challenges, but there’s making people see the real thing and the culture of innovation that Boeing has. That’s deep inside. We got the sense that he was very passionate about what he does, and he cares deeply about changing the world. That’s probably what drives these people.
Singh: Yes, it’s probably more intrinsic rinewards, as we say, and the industry leadership that Boeing enjoys. Certainly, Airbus is a major player as well. The 787 is a wonderful aircraft from a passenger point of view in terms of very tangible benefits. He made the point that maybe because Airbus was starting to challenge them, they had to come up with the next generation in terms of fuel efficiency, the use of composites, the greater pressure in the cabin as a result of the composite being used, and so on. Now, we have a sense of what’s on the inside, the results in those great outcomes.
Chaudhuri: That’s right. I loved your question about, why is it that, essentially, things look the same over time, over 50 years? But actually, there’s a lot going on in the background and how these planes are developed. It’s very insightful conversation.
About Our Guest
Dr. Brian Tillotson is a Boeing Senior Technical fellow and an Enterprise Domain Leader for Platform Systems and Subsystems, one of the company’s eight focused technology domains. He also serves as chief engineer for Systems Technology within Boeing Research & Technology and holds more than 90 patents in aerospace, being one of Boeing’s most prolific inventors. He teaches Technical Development courses in mentoring, leadership, and systems engineering as well. Outside of Boeing, he has published science fiction and poetry.
The Mack Institute debuted its first episode of Mastering Innovation on Thursday, December 7. Mastering Innovation is live on Thursdays at 4:00 p.m. ET. Listen to more episodes here.