Marlow was well aware there was skepticism about the use of ethnography and observation as a way to suss out new product needs. He’s intent to demonstrate just how valuable his team’s work has been. He sets out to shock the Accipiter Executives with their approach and awe them with the results.

Shock and awe.  We like to think, in our modern times, that we’ve invented all there is to know about warfare, but that’s not really the case.  Shock and awe, while coined in the first Desert Storm war, was a concept well known to the ancients.  Look no further than the Persians.  The sheer size and magnitude of their forces was their “shock and awe”.  Or perhaps the Germans in World War II, who used speed as their shock and awe in the Blitzkrieg.  Today, our military “shock and awe” is placing high technology rounds placed precisely where we want them to go, at least most of the time.

The concept of shock and awe is to confound your opponent, to knock him off his feet, to force him to interact on the field of your choosing, to disrupt his thinking and communications.  Shock and awe was what the Screaming Eagles were doing to the Accipiter management team as we presented the findings of our project to date.

Executives who are familiar with the standard dog and pony PowerPoint presentations with page after page of statistical analyses of customer satisfaction surveys were completely unprepared for the onslaught of video of Accipiter customers using our aerospace products.  We went in with our guns blazing, ready to knock them back in their seats.  We knew there was skepticism about the use of ethnography and observation as a way to suss out new product needs.  We were intent to demonstrate just how valuable our work had been.  We intended to shock them with our approach and awe them with the results.  In those goals, we weren’t disappointed.

We pulled together a seven minute montage of the best moments of the video, which included the discovery of a tool developed by one of the maintenance engineers and another vignette in which an installer tried several times to seat the landing gear on a plane without success.  Fortunately we’d had the sound engineer bleep out the language used by that crew.  The lights came up after the video and I glanced around the conference room.  There were stunned, blank looks on the faces of most of the executives in the room.  Only Gregg, Susan and I knew what was coming, and I think the rest of the members of the steering committee were simply blown away by the insights in just a seven minute video.

“That’s what they think of our product?” said Brockwell.

Gregg didn’t need to speak.  He simply nodded.

“What can we do to improve that landing gear?  What we’ve seen in just these few minutes is completely unacceptable.”

“What you’ve seen” said Gregg “is industry standard.  None of the landing gear is designed to be easy to maintain or install.  That gear could have been from any of our competitors, and you’d see the same issues and frustrations.  We think there’s a huge opportunity here, even if we don’t change the gear at all, to create new tools and methods to simplify the installation and maintenance of the gear.”

Fred Phillips weighed in for the first time.  “I’ve never seen anything like this.  Did you plan this?  Was this staged?  It’s almost too perfect for your needs.”

“No, everything we captured was in real time.  We told the installation and maintenance teams we wanted to film them doing their regular jobs and we wanted to talk with them about their experiences and frustrations.  We also gathered their ideas as time permitted. What you saw in the Southeast Asian Express clip reflects the experiences of other firms.  It wasn’t staged.”

My turn.  “Here’s why we like ethnography as a way to spot needs.  It isn’t scripted, and unexpected things happen that force the team to see the problem or challenge from the customer’s perspective.  I’m willing to bet that most of the team went into this exercise thinking about changes to the landing gear, and in the end that may be one of our ideas.  However, what we’ve seen is that there are significant challenges in areas we have never considered.  And in the video, you see not only the problem, but the magnitude of the problem and the passion behind it.”

“Passion?” said Brockwell.  “I’m just glad we don’t have to interact with these guys on a regular basis if that’s what they think of our product.”

“What should they think?  Their job is to install and maintain landing gear, which as we’ve seen is difficult, dangerous and often results in injuries.  No one seems to care about this issue, yet landing gear is critically important to the safety of an airplane.”  Gregg had become the biggest champion for ethnography after that particular visit.

“Rather than argue about what they think of Accipiter and the existing products, can we all agree that we have some powerfully important insights for customer needs, which resulted from using ethnography?”  I had the heads nodding at that stipulation.  “Good, then let’s look at the needs we’ve identified and how we plan to proceed in our next phase.”

“Let’s recap our approach.  We used ethnography to identify existing needs and unmet or unspoken needs about the products, services and business models for aerospace.  I know there were some concerns about using this approach, rather than more traditional research methodologies that Accipiter has more experience using.  I want to shift from this introductory video to some of the specific needs we’ve identified.  Susan?”

All eyes shifted to Susan, and there was a palpable sense of anticipation in the conference room for the first time.  Most of the executives had probably expected another dull PowerPoint presentation, but we’d intentionally pulled some of the more interesting and provocative vignettes from the video.  Most of the executives hadn’t been in front of a customer in quite some time, at least in an interaction that wasn’t stage managed and artificial.

“We found five key needs coming out of the research we’ve done, combining our scenario planning and ethnography work.  These key needs are..” at this point she directed their thinking to a PowerPoint slide.

“First, improved installation and maintenance.  As you’ve seen from the video, these are dedicated professionals who are called on to do difficult work with our gear.  Improving their lives will create a dramatic improvement in recommendations and in maintenance.  Second, reduction in weight, for both a reduction in fuel usage and easier maintenance.  As fuel prices increase, every system is coming under scrutiny.  Third, education.  The airlines are constantly placing a microscope on maintenance costs, and many older and more experienced maintenance engineers have retired.  There’s a need for more insight and more knowledge about the equipment, its useful life and maintenance.  Fourth, information.  Our gear are involved in some of the most critical aspects of a flight – take off and landing – yet they are not much more sophisticated from an information perspective than landing gear from World War II.  We believe there is a lot of valuable information that can be generated and used to improve landing gear and its maintenance.  Finally, partnering.  We need to do a much better job understanding and working with the firms that make the cowling, coupling and mounting systems that our landing gear work with.  There are great efficiencies to be gained if we innovate with these firms to simplify the systems.”

A brief ripple of unease passed through the room, and several of the executives made eye contact with each other, sending and receiving silent messages. Finally, Phillips spoke up.

“You’re not pursuing ideas about reworking the landing gear technology, except to reduce weight?”

“That’s correct.  Our investigations and research so far tell us there are much larger opportunities for innovation in systems and in information around the landing gear, especially if we want to get to market quickly with some valuable new ideas.  We’ve considered a significant rework of the gear technology but that would require several years for design and testing, and we must move faster.  So our disruptive ideas will have to do with aspects of the landing gear, but not the gear directly.”

So we’d managed to upset the apple cart twice.  Shock and awe with the results of the research, and recommending service and business model innovation to a product oriented company.  If we kept up this pace, the oxygen masks will descend from the ceiling so that executives at altitude can breathe normally.  It was almost a perverse pleasure to see them confronted with the changes that were necessary for the survival of their aerospace division.  Yet the experience was one I’d lived through before.  Actually on just about every innovation project I’ve led.

Susan continued.  “What we are going to do in our next phase is to start generating ideas using these needs as points of departure.  We’ve done our research, we understand critical needs and we have a tightly defined project scope and timeframe.  We’re seeking ideas that will provide us with a large disruptive offering in the next year or less.  We anticipate an idea generation, evaluation and prototyping phase of approximately 3 to 4 months.  At the end of that phase we’ll present several ideas that we believe provide Accipiter the best opportunities to gain market share quickly.  Any questions?”

Were there any questions?  Far more questions than answers, but most will go unsaid.  Like a detective in a dime store novel, every road seems promising yet so many are dead ends.  The good news was that while there was an undercurrent of discomfort, there was enough evidence in our favor that nothing could stop us right now.  Shock and awe allowed us to set the parameters for the discussion, and we had created just enough compelling evidence to give us the nod to go forward.

By Jeffrey Phillips

About the author:

Jeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project. Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities.