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Enemies of Progress - Part 1: Why we want to look out of airplanes and into washing machines

You should be able to see inside ovens from the outside. We want to judge the degree of browning of the pizza without having to open the flap and let heat escape unnecessarily. That's a good thing, it makes sense and should stay that way.

Washing machines can also be viewed from the outside. That's also quite nice and even curious cats like it - as we know from numerous social media clips. But what's the point? Apparently, it used to be that you could open the door at any time, even if the wash cycle hadn't finished and the water hadn't been pumped out. Of course, that made a huge mess. So it was a smart and simple 'feature' to put in the clear porthole door. This also explains why we can't see into the dryer and dishwasher: Due to construction and function, nothing leaks out of there if you just yank the door open in between.

If we do that, we'll alienate our customers.

I can imagine how, in product development meetings of washing machine manufacturers, the technical or research team has often suggested dispensing with the transparent door in a new model. After all, the original reason had been eliminated: A lock prevents the door from being opened before the program expires, and a different design would be cheaper, technically simpler or otherwise advantageous. Marketing and sales are sounding the alarm: customers want a transparent door. They don't know any different, they want to look inside the washing machine and won't buy a different model. The issue is settled, the door remains as it is.

So what? It doesn't matter whether washing machine doors are transparent or not, what progress, what innovation is being prevented?

It's a bit of a matter of principle for me, but okay, another example:

There are windows in every passenger plane so that you can see out of them. Relationships have already broken down over the question of who can sit in 22A - by the window - and who has to squeeze into 22B - the middle seat. Especially during takeoff and landing, we want to admire the world and, on the pilot's advice, perhaps even observe a mountain range or a rare cloud formation. And should there be an emergency, we want to see what's going on outside, although the options for passengers in such cases are notoriously limited.

The other day I read about a new aircraft design: a model consisting of only one V-shaped wing, much more efficient, consumes significantly less fuel. Windows would probably have to be dispensed with, however, so the question was raised whether people would accept that and such a design would really have a chance. So here, a cherished - but superfluous - habit could be a brake on real progress and an important innovation.

What can be deduced from this? I draw three conclusions:

First, innovative product development must not take customer habits into account.

I still remember the news that Apple wants to do away with the "home button" on its iPhone. "Please don't!", you could literally hear the worldwide user community cry out. We need this single haptic hold that literally takes us "home" to the menu and that also recognizes the fingerprint. By now, we know that Face ID and swipe up work just as well or even better. Apple's internal organization and consistent innovation process ensure that concerns are not majority-driven, that meaningful innovations always have the right of way, and that customer habits can be changed and even redefined.

Secondly, it is not always the others who are to blame for a lack of willingness to change.

Every day, I talk to people from many different companies about transformations, digitalization, growth, new business models and change processes in general. Almost everywhere, people complain that a lack of willingness to change slows down or even completely prevents the necessary cultural change. Agile working, yes, that's important, but try introducing that everywhere at our large organization.

I understand that, but sometimes it bothers me that a condescending attitude is adopted - along the lines of: I want to, but everyone else doesn't want to change. I don't believe that people generally reject change or are hostile to innovation. They are skeptical because not every change leads to an improvement. And holding on to cherished habits is - if we are honest - deep in all of us, as the above examples show.

Third, it's best to be persuasive, to follow through against resistance if necessary, and to take responsibility.

So what to do when you want to bring about change in organizations and encounter resistance. I believe there are two ways:

Ideally, one convinces and clearly states what the goal is and why the future state will be better than the current one. "Nothing is more powerful than an idea at the right time," Viktor Hugo already knew in the 19th century. So the focus should be on the target state to be achieved, not the way to get there. There is too much talk about change and too little about target states. But only with a convincing vision can you really inspire people and influence their behavior.

If that doesn't work, the only thing left to do is to order it, i.e. to implement it even in the face of internal resistance. But then there must also be a willingness to take responsibility if the change fails. My feeling is that this is the real problem in many companies with regard to change: the lack of will on the part of management to really drive transformations forward, to set an example and also to be prepared to take personal responsibility in the event of failure.

It's actually quite nice to look out of the airplane window, and who knows whether the new model will really save that much fuel. And I want to be able to keep looking into my washing machine.

About the author

Dr. Sebastian Tschentscher finds the best digital minds for your company with his executive search boutique "Digital Minds".

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