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  • Stopping Moon Shot Product Strategy Warrants Praise for Boeing, Yet Food for
  • Boeing recently announced a shift in its product development strategy, according to a short piece in the May 22, 2014 Wall Street Journal. Titled "Plane Maker Looks to Roll Out New Jets Piecemeal," the piece reported that Boeing will develop "jets in incremental steps, rather than once-in-a-generation 'moon shots' that carry too much risk."

    As someone who researches business success patterns, I see this move by Boeing as warranting praise because it is clearly a step in the right direction. Yet, Boeing's revised approach to product strategy also warrants food for thought, which I'll address later in this newsletter.

    As the Wall Street Journal piece reported, Boeing is emulating Apple's product strategy, and the change in Boeing's approach not only reflects pressure to hold down costs, but is also a response to the company's difficulties with its 787 Dreamliner jet. The piece indicates that Boeing CEO Jim McNerney "said that Boeing today is looking to mimic incremental product development trends in the auto and consumer electronics sectors."

    Based on findings from my research, and confirmed in studies done by others, a high risk moon shot approach is generally not the most effective way to successfully develop major new products. Thus, Boeing is on the right track with its plans to avoid moon shots.

    Boeing's aim to emulate Apple is also admirable. Apple has had tremendous success with innovative new products. And, Apple's new product success is something that many companies would aspire to emulate. Furthermore, based upon my research into business success and failure patterns, Apple has been following many of those success patterns. So, being more like Apple could benefit Boeing, as long as it is done in a way that fits Boeing well.

    Emulating Apple has implications in light of Boeing's difficulties with its new 787 Dreamliner jet. Boeing's 787 was developed in a manner that contrasted markedly with product development at Apple. Unlike Apple's successful innovations, Boeing's 787 Dreamliner entailed a moon shot-like approach that tried to change practically everything. Even Apple's most spectacular breakthrough innovations--innovations that truly changed the world--did not entail changing everything about the product like the troubled Boeing 787 Dreamliner did. Changing so much at once can easily be a recipe for major problems. To get that many changes to work well is risky—like a moon shot. So, it's good that Boeing is abandoning the moon shot approach.

    Food for thought comes into play, however, in defining how Boeing will replace the moon shot. In doing so, Boeing must essentially clarify what it means to be more like Apple. After all, it's not always easy to transfer what worked at Apple to other companies. For example, former Apple executive Ron Johnson, had trouble transferring Apple's success to Penney's—although what Johnson attempted at Penney's was like a moon shot in that it entailed so much change. Unlike Penney's, Boeing's emulation of Apple has the advantage of now recognizing the value of avoiding the change everything moon shot.

    Still, food for thought issues arise because terms like incremental were used by the Wall Street Journal to describe Boeing's no longer moon shot product strategy. This raises the question of how well Boeing recognizes that successful product development is not an either-or scenario. It is not a case of either you change practically everything with a moon shot or you make itsy-bitsy incremental modifications. Extremely successful new products can be somewhere in between. And, Apple's spectacular successes, which Boeing may want to emulate, fall into this in-between stepwise realm.

    Since the Wall Street Journal piece was short, it doesn't clarify whether Boeing will focus on a stepwise approach. It is unclear if terms like incremental appear merely to emphasize that Boeing will no longer take moon shot-like big jumps. Perhaps It is just a matter of semantics, but the Wall Street Journal piece uses the term incremental a bit more than it uses the term step. If it's not just semantics, there is a possibility that Boeing will ultimately end up changing too little. On the other hand, Boeing may do just fine since sources other than the Wall Street Journal (the Wichita Business Journal, for example) indicate that Boeing execs may grasp the value of building on what you have, to ultimately produce something that seems revolutionary, but that happens via smaller steps.

    This is quite important, as I explained in my report "Evolution, not Revolution: How to Innovate without Destroying Your Business". The report was published on my web site in 2007. My report points out that what seems like revolutionary innovation occurs via smaller evolutionary steps which build on past foundations in a stepwise fashion. And, my report explains that these smaller steps are not the same as mere incrementalism. They are not itsy bitsy incremental changes like adding a new flavor. Yes, it's true that a minor incremental change can sometimes become a new product that does well. But, highly successful breakthrough innovations generally go beyond mere incrementalism. They are developed via a series of steps, but the end result is a product with far more than just tiny incremental changes.

    So the question for Boeing is: how well does the company understand the differences between moon shots, progressive evolutionary steps, and tiny incremental changes, as well as the role these play in product strategy?

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