February 3, 2009

What's Your Heresy?

Can a plane fly with no jet fuel?

Ridiculous, right? But the aviation industry is starting to ask itself this very question. In early 2008, Virgin Airlines and Boeing launched a test flight where one engine ran partly on biofuels, in this case coconut oil. I've done some work with Boeing and heard their environmental execs tossing around ideas like these for a plan they call Project Heresy. I love it.

Imagine creating space for disruptive innovation where no question is dumb. It's the "no-left turns" approach (after UPS' catchy phrase for its GPS-enabled route minimization that included avoiding left turns to save idling time). Of course, now might not seem like the best time to look for next-generation ideas, given the economic climate. But even if the focus in the green realm turns mainly to getting lean this year, there is still opportunity for rapid innovation. Here are a few more heretical questions:

Can we send no waste to the landfill?

What a pain that sounds like. It's so much easier to just cart it all away. But Subaru and a few others have found that they can reduce landfill waste not just a lot, but to zero. The last trip to the dump from Subaru's Lafayette, Indiana plant was May 4, 2004. It's a longer story for another time, but through the old "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra, the company has easily paid for the effort through savings, brought toxic emissions per unit down 55%, and reduced CO2 per unit by 20%. All these benefits stemmed from a focus on getting lean and reducing waste and from asking a seemingly wacky question.

What does our business look like if oil goes to $500 per barrel?

At first, the idea of a ten-fold increase in the price of oil sounds ridiculous. But we went from $14 to $140 in less than 10 years, so it's possible. We're facing a medium and long-term constraint on energy and other basic resources. Some diehards are holding onto the notion that there will always be enough, but the Wall Street Journal and other sober business sources have been hitting a theme very hard all year - supply will not keep up with demand in the coming years. That means we either substitute out (by asking, "Can we drive or fly without oil?") or deal with very high prices, which brings me back to my heresy about $500 oil. But whether or not you believe prices will rise again, asking the question makes you think differently, perhaps creating the mental space for real innovation. If your products can help your customers reduce costs or avoid environmental challenges, you'll find a market. Which brings me to...

Can we clean the floor with no chemicals?

Ok, this one is a bit more particular to a specific industry. I'm referring here to the question that the mid-sized commercial cleaning company, Tennant, asked itself a few years ago. It's a story I've been telling a lot, but in short, Tennant developed a process that allows their floor-cleaning machines (the small Zamboni-like machines you see janitors pushing around) to use just tap water. The technology works and avoids chemicals. Instead of just getting more efficient, Tennant found a way to avoid the chemicals entirely, thus allowing customers to avoid a major environmental and safety concern.

Heretical ideas have swept industries many times. If someone in the advertising, television, or music businesses had asked 10 years ago, "What if people stop watching commercials?" or "What if people think music should be free?" they would've been laughed out of the room. Then Tivo and Napster asked those questions. Of course, one turned out to be illegal, but their innovations laid the groundwork for others, like iTunes. And the television business is in the middle of a painful transformation away from traditional 60 second spots.

Environmental pressures will force much bigger changes than these in many industries in the coming years. Are you ready? What's your heresy?

This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.

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