Taking Design Thinking to the Skies

Taking Design Thinking to the Skies

Necessity is often considered to be the mother of all innovation. For Eurocontrol’s Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC), innovation has always been at the heart of its operations. But, the pandemic focussed MUAC’s innovative drive to super charge almost overnight. At the worst point in the pandemic, the number of flights had plummeted by 90% from the usual 5000 a day, to just 500. As with all air traffic companies around the world, the economic consequences of this were felt immediately. However, as the lead-time to train an air traffic controller is 3 to 4 years, the business is not easily scalable. Eurocontrol’s MUAC knew that cutting training in the short term hits you harder down the line when the traffic recovers. The proof of this was seen in the recent chaos at many European and international airports, who were laying off staff during the pandemic.

MUAC had to think quickly about what they could do differently in these unprecedented circumstances. Already ahead of the curve with the launch of their Innovation Lab in 2019, Eurocontrol chose to collaborate with UMIO on a Design Thinking trajectory and this resulted in a significant shift in approach and opened up opportunities, which would have otherwise not become apparent.

Shifting focus

Eurocontrol shifted its focus from the quantity of traffic to the quality of services. This required some out-of-the-box thinking. They enlisted the expertise of Sabine Janssen, Head of Service Science Factory at UMIO. This paved the way for the ideas and innovation to manifest across the company and produced results that were tangible and sustainable. Robert Parys, Programme Manager and Innovation Champion at MUAC, shares his experience of the training and how it was able to permeate beyond the staff taking the course into the wider mind-set of the organisation.

The launch of the Innovation Lab also heralded in the new MUAC Director. John Santurbano was already interested in boosting Eurocontrol’s innovative approach and changing the culture of the organisation. Whilst Eurocontrol was well established at demonstrating a results-orientated culture, and was a well-organised and well-functioning organisation, it lacked the wider structural support needed for out-of-the-box thinking.

Allocating space and time to innovate

Turning ideas into a reality is a challenge in any organisation. In Eurocontrol’s case, intentionally allocating space and time to allow these ideas to flourish was a large part of Santurbano’s approach. They began a transformation programme involving the leadership of the organisation. Setting time aside for innovation proved to be one of the biggest game changers for Eurocontrol. Staff were given 10% of their working time to innovate. Borrowing from the Google idea of officially setting working time aside for innovation not necessarily related to their daily work, was a significant change.

The major driver of the Innovation Lab was creating the right ecosystem and space for success. Ideas need a placeholder, somewhere in the organisation, where they can be nurtured and brought to life, or intentionally not pursued. Parys agrees that some of the ideas would not have been taken seriously were it not for the Innovation Lab. The shift in mind-set that this created was needed in order to consider something, which isn’t necessarily going to deliver results in the short term. Sometimes nothing will come of the ideas, but despite this, you learn from the process.

Perception of failure

For results-oriented companies, the pursuit of success as an absolute can leave little room for the inevitable failures. The perception of failure within many organisational cultures can prevent innovation from flourishing. The Design Thinking course introduced the concept of failure as being an integral part of innovation. According to industry standards, nine out of ten product innovations fail. So, recognising that something is a failure is the first step. The second step is to be comfortable with this and to ask what was learnt from it.

Facilitating collaborations across industries

Collaboration and co-creating is one of the core principles of the Design Thinking approach. The delivery of the course and the introductions that were made with other Innovation Labs was invaluable for Parys and his team. The connections were from completely different industries, but each had experienced the same problems with innovation and the same mind-set. Parys considers these collaborations as one of the key strengths of the course.

One consequence of the pandemic for Eurocontrol MUAC, was that it forced the organisation to re-assess how they spend their time. The Innovation Lab enabled the process and the Design Thinking trajectory opened up possibilities even further. Across the organisation, people started noticing other ways of doing things and began to implement them. They were able to re-focus their resources onto projects, which in their normal busy schedule had not been possible before.

Influencers across the organisation

Groups of people were tasked with facilitating the innovation process across the organisation. These change makers were used to execute change in the organisation, an approach that is familiar in a change management team where people are used to working with different groups of people from across the organisation. The mind-set is human-centric with a focus on the user or customer’s needs.

Without the Innovation Lab, Parys thinks that they would not have this foundation because people didn’t have the time. With this setup, they had an opportunity to take some influential people in the organisation from the different domains. People from procurement, engineering and operations. These people were the ‘out of the box’ thinkers, but they also had influence. Within this environment, it grew organically. It brought the right people together and introduced the agile principles within these groups with a human-centric mind-set. Introducing some of these methodologies can influence the whole organisation.

Applying design principles

Speaking to the people who are directly affected by the issues is the exploration part of the Design Thinking process. The team interviewed people in the organisation, asking them about what they thought about a particular app, as an example, and how it might be improved. Consulting and engaging with the users is crucial to problem solving. Taking a human-centred approach allowed the team to set aside their own assumptions about the problems. Instead, they were able to gain real insight into the needs of the air traffic controllers, engineers, customers and passengers.

It was very clear that the pandemic resulted in unprecedented circumstances in air traffic control. Yet, the post-pandemic outcome could have been felt much more acutely had it not been for Eurocontrol’s refocussed innovative approach. The Design Thinking trajectory enabled Eurocontrol to intentionally reconfigure their situation and embrace the unpredictability with a future proof outlook.

Innovation Projects by Service Science Factory

Innovation projects by Service Science Factory

Our economy is becoming increasingly service-oriented, leaving many organisations struggling to adapt. The Service Science Factory helps companies identify business challenges and potential innovations, and make them tangible.

If your organisation, like Eurocontrol, is interested in upping its capacity to innovate and co-creating inspiring new ideas for the future, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Sabine Janssen to discuss the options.

Related expert(s)

Sabine Janssen
Director and Innovation Lead at UMIO/Innovate

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