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Innovation facilitators are in vogue, but the innovation process doesn’t begin and end there – it requires engaging every level of the organisation and every department in the search for lasting value, argues Sofia Fürstenberg

Shipping companies around the world are waking up to the fact that they should start doing things differently. Business is not as usual. In almost every sector of the maritime industry, there is increasing complexity, uncertainty and difficulty in sustaining businesses.

While consolidation and operational excellence are important to stay afloat, something more is needed. Many shipping companies and their stakeholders have realized the need to develop internal competence in innovation in order to find new ways of creating value.

While this is doubtless the right thing to do, it is surprising to see the extent to which the industry is placing its trust in external or internal facilitators. Don’t get me wrong—having a competent facilitator to help structure and propel the inception of ideas is much needed, and should not be under-appreciated. But if this ‘idea-sprouting’ phase becomes the totality of an innovation process, reducing innovation activities—however interesting and even delightful—into some sort of inspirational happening, things are heading the wrong way. Innovation activities have become Fun & Games.

How many times now have you seen sparkly events like hackathons, “post-it notes’ bonanzas” and even the use of LEGO to visualise ideas? They are fun, no doubt about it. And they instill awareness, understanding and even skills in a company’s workforce around how to think about creating ideas, prototyping and producing novelty.

While these events for sure can identify, and build incredible solutions, I have a feeling they rarely do. This is not because the ideas are necessarily bad, but because there is no process in place to take them further. More importantly, and particularly worrying, is the limited effort often put into getting the right ideas to begin with. There is a lack of both process knowledge and innovation competence—of how to develop the right ideas, and indeed, when ideas have been developed, a lack of competence in how to bring these grains of genius into something tangible, something that can create value for your company in the future.

The maritime industry will quickly realise that finding ideas that can make your company stand out from the competition, is not easy. It is not a challenge solved by having an innovation expert facilitating a three-hour workshop with your best engineers.

That will, at best, lead to some knowledge-building around how to mature a list of granular suggestions into a one-page visual. But most of all, this efficiency-focussed industry needs to grasp that innovation activities cannot be measured against the same metrics as daily operations. Innovation is something completely different to operational excellence, and is definitely not about producing as many ideas as possible within smallest amount of time.

Whichever way you put it, turning your company into an innovator will require a substantial effort. It is a good idea therefore to do it properly from the outset. The first piece of unwelcome news for some of the shipping giants out there, is that a hierarchical organization presents a very effective barrier to in-house innovation. Ideas from the floor are killed before they even get a chance to succeed.
But your operational staff are otherwise a great source for scouting of new ideas. Getting timely access to reflections and insights from captains and chief engineers at sea, from the people in the docks, from the superintendents and from the drone-operating hull inspectors, is invaluable.

The second piece of tough news is that unless you have established coordinated innovation processes throughout the organization, for capturing, building and enabling ideas to develop, you will most likely create parallel innovation efforts inside the organization, with lost synergies and less valuable ideas as a consequence. Why is this coordination needed? Well, when you think of it, it is simple: Your company needs all levels of an organization to function fully. The marketing, the finance department, the legal, the technical, the operational department.

A complex web of activities necessary to bring about lasting value in a fiercely competitive business. So why shouldn’t innovation, that looks at creating sustainable value in an uncertain world, also need all levels? I have worked as a facilitator most of my professional life inside the maritime world. I know that this role is important and much needed. But what’s required is a clear and courageous change in how shipping companies approach and engage in innovation activities.

Until these companies take a long hard look at how they build and encourage a lasting innovation culture, I believe innovation will remain marginal within them, despite all the fancy hackathons and sparkling ideation workshops.


Images courtesy © Getty Images

This article appeared in the Q3 2017 issue of Futurenautics.

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