Innoboard: There is no consistent definition for innovation. Every industry and every department has its own definition. How do you define innovation at Airbus Defence and Space?
Hélène Huby: Innovation in general is an idea which becomes a real, new and profitable business. We have three main types of innovation. The first one is an improvement in the production line, the manufacturing process, etc. like augmented reality, automation and industry 4.0. I would call it “operational innovation“.
The second type is “technical innovation“. It is about investing in exploring new technologies because these new technologies could be critical enablers for future products and services.
The third one is “business innovation“. It is a new business, for example a new type of drones, a new type of launchers or a new type of big data services.
You can achieve these 3 types of innovation internally-only and/or in collaboration with additional players like universities, start-ups etc.
What exactly is your area of responsibility as Head of Transversal Innovation at Airbus Defence and Space?
At Airbus Defence and Space we are divided into four business lines: Space Systems, Electronics, Communications/Intelligence/Services, and Military Aircraft. My area of responsibility is first and foremost to finance and accelerate innovative projects which involve two or more of these business lines.
It is therefore really good that
- We are part of the Engineering department of Airbus Defence & Space – at the very core of the DNA of the company. Hence, we are recognized as a “member of the family”.
- We are strongly supported by the top management. Hence, we have the necessary freedom to be creative and independent.
I think you need to have those two qualities if you want to foster innovation in large corporations.
How do you process an innovation project in which two or more business lines are involved?
We act a bit like a venture fund. At the beginning, we support the projects with a small amount of money and a few months of coaching, and then, step by step, we invest more. In a capital intensive industry like ours, people tend to say “if we do not have that big amount of money we cannot do anything – even a first draft“. But exactly that is what we are challenging, inspired from the lean start-up methods. For a very small amount of money, people should be able to come up with a first technical roadmap, a first business model and a first feedback from customers.
Following that we have various phases with typical deliverables. After each phase we decide whether we invest more money or stop the project. At the beginning of a project we take 100% of the risk. Later on, we co-finance the project with the business lines.
The projects are developed in the business lines. My department has no project because we cannot act as an investor as well as a project leader.
Twice a year the leaders of the most successful projects get the opportunity to present their project in front of the executive committee. Thereby we make the executive committee aware of the project and give the project a huge visibility within the company.
Which are the key success factors for an innovative corporate culture?
One key success factor is more freedom and more responsibility for people who are “doers“ – creative people with the ability to make an idea real and to develop it further. You need to identify these people and make a direct link between them and the few people who decide.
The second one is the involvement of the CEO. A company needs a CEO who is strongly committed to innovation and who has a vision in terms of “my company has to change in that direction“. It does not have to be very precise but it has to give a direction. Then the CEO will protect and finance those people who are pushing in the same direction.
The third success factor is to show some results in the short run in order to ensure credibility and of course to bring revenues to the company in the mid-term.
Why is innovation important for you personally?
First, I am driven by impact. Innovation, if successful, can have a tremendous positive impact on the company. Basically you help building the future of the company.
Second, meaning. I am extremely proud of working in innovation in a company where French and German experts jointly develop defense products. It means peace.
Last but not least the people I am working with. When you work in innovation you work with people who have a tremendous energy – they are entrepreneurs, they want to bring something positive to humanity, and they have a deep knowledge of their sector. So you have the chance to meet extraordinary people.
Helene is Head of Transversal Innovation at Airbus Defence & Space. She develops new products and services, and she fosters strategic partnerships with start-ups. She played a prominent role in the recent creation of a venture fund and an innovation center in Silicon Valley for the Airbus Group. She worked before for FABERNOVEL, a European digital seed-investment, and innovation consulting company. She began her career in the media sector where she launched innovative projects on the web.
She graduated from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration and the Ecole Normale Supérieure de la rue d’Ulm with a specialization in economics. Privately, Helene is married, she has 4 kids and she loves classical music.
ILI CONSULTING AG thanks Ms. Huby for the expert interview.