A while back I had lunch with Scott Westover, a pilot, a business executive and an aspiring speaker. He shared with me some thoughts on how what he learned from aerobatic flying could be applied to business success. I asked him to write a blog entry on this topic. His philosophy is called “Energy Management.” I love it because it appears to be an irrefutable law, much like the Third Law of Motion which states that for every force there is an equal and opposite force. More importantly, it explains why many innovations fail. Here is Scott’s story.
About four years ago I started flying aerobatics. During one of my early flights confidence exceeded skill as I attempted an advanced maneuver. It was one thing to practice emergency recoveries with a well-qualified instructor in the back seat and a different thing entirely to problem solve on my own while the trees were getting bigger in a hurry. I got lucky, and after a series of control inputs I rolled back upright and pulled out of the dive. After landing, I found my instructor and confessed what had happened. He offered a simple explanation: I had been reacting to the forces of energy acting on the airplane rather than managing them to maintain control. It had only taken a moment, and once control was lost things escalated quickly.
The energy he referred to that day includes the forces of gravity, lift, drag, and thrust. As a pilot I learned to manage the relationships between these forces to control the airplane. After spending a few more hours in the cockpit, I realized that managing energy in an airplane is related to managing energy in business.
As a healthcare administrator I have an appreciation for the impact change has on business. I have found that thinking about my business in terms of gravity, lift, drag, and thrust allows me to implement decisions faster and to navigate the grey area between “strategic planning” and “business objectives.” Priorities become clear and there are fewer surprises and distractions. Consider the following energy definitions and think about the changes facing your business. I guarantee you will recall things that fit these descriptions:
Gravity pulls you down. Think about gravity in terms of things that pull you down and may be beyond your control. Changing market conditions and new competitors represent gravity. In healthcare there is an expectation that a hospital will have the best technology with which to diagnose patients. A hospital that ignores advances in technology will eventually lose a service line or go out of business. It will crash.
Lift fights gravity. When the market changes, what are you going to do about it? Using the healthcare example, new technology represents lift. The obvious answer is to make regular capital investments in Information Technology, yet every business knows there will always be more available technology than money can buy. Since it is impossible to increase lift without increasing drag it becomes important to anticipate the drag each opportunity represents.
Drag holds you back. Every time lift is introduced the amount of drag is increased. Implementing a piece of new technology, even though it may ultimately allow you to become more competitive, will increase drag in the form of staff time, lost productivity, cash and a shift in focus away from your customers.
Thrust propels you forward. Regardless of where it comes from, thrust is essential to overcoming drag. In this healthcare example, thrust can be found in letting referring physicians and patients know about the improvements you are making while listening to staff to uncover hidden barriers to implementation.
By thinking in four dimensions rather than “problem/solution,” businesses know how much thrust is needed to get ahead and where thrust will come from before the launch of any lift-generating initiative. The amount of available thrust determines how much drag an organization can overcome, so ultimately thrust determines how many lift strategies can be implemented at a given time while maintaining control.
Scott’s powerful analogy helps explain why so few innovations are successful. Businesses are often:
- blind to the force of gravity (e.g., disruptive innovations by new entrants) pulling on their industry
- ill-prepared to invest the necessary lift (e.g., financial investment, resources)
- dragged down by old cultural norms that seek the status quo
- are not creative about how to take their new innovations to the market in a way that can give it the necessary thrust
Use these four factors as a checklist to make sure your innovations move upward…rather than allowing them to crash and burn.
Stephen Shapiro is the author of three books, a popular innovation speaker, and is the Chief Innovation Evangelist for Innocentive, the leader in Open Innovation.