A serious side to industry incumbents and their inability to innovate

This past weekend, returning home from a trip to London with friends, on a whim I bought a copy of  November’s Practical Boat Owner (PBO) magazine, looking forward to some interesting boating reading in-flight. So it turned out, but what I didn’t expect was for it to provide blogging material on the topic of industry incumbents and their struggles to innovate.

The article that caught my attention was looking at whether a “revolutionary new lifejacket design radically increasing the chances of survival of a man overboard”. Serious stuff for any sailor.

In many markets, brands and products make small leap-frogs over each other, mostly marketing-driven “features”  in the name of innovation. In our clamouring for “shiny and new” we often overlook this in the markets for washing machines, mobile phones, bicycles, and the like. But in the sector for marine personal safety equipment, it doesn’t strike me as acceptable.

In this case, unfortunately,  the cost was much higher than a bad quarter and a dip in a share-price.

In a previous issue, PBO had done some testing of lifejackets following the death of Christopher Reddish who “drowned in minutes, despite being attached”. The tests concluded that a “boat would need to be slowed to less than 2 knots within 1 minute to give the casualty any chance of survival”. A crew’s reaction times and a boat’s inertia combine to make those chances slim indeed.

A 22-year-old engineer and sailor Oscar Mead, was moved to act. In his words:

“I dug out some webbing, a D-ring and on old inflatable lifejacket, and experimented with attaching a harness to the back of the jacket.”

“It was so effective that I couldn’t believe no one had done it before.”

It doesn’t sound like the kind of effort a product design engineer working for an established marine safety brand would be discouraged by his management from doing. At least I hope not.

Some eighteen months later, backed by a successful patent, Oscar Mead’s TeamO lifejacket was debuted.

All traditional harnesses, using an attachment point on a sailor’s chest, pull man overboard victims through the water chest forward, effectively forcing water into the mouth and face and this can literally drown sailors who go overboard, despite being tethered to the boat.

The new TeamO design allows the harness line to pop over the wearers shoulders when called into service so that the tether load is taken from the back and the man overboard is pulled through the water with his head securely above water and his mouth away from the oncoming water.

Here’s the video clearly demonstrating the difference between a “traditional” lifejacket, and the new TeamO lifejacket.

Team O Lifejacket on test in PBO

It saddens me that it cost a sailor his life, independent journalism to run product trials, and a sufficiently motivated young man to move the dial and come up with something better.

It strikes me that the marine safety industry could well do with reading up on some of Simon Wardley‘s thinking, in particular on inertia to change:

Inertia can create quite a significant barrier to change, which is often why it is a company that is not encumbered by an existing business model that creates the change and produces the more evolved form of the activity.

And perhaps then some reflective thinking, their situation clearly framed by management innovation gurus Gary Hamel and Polly LaBarre in their recent article Making Innovation a Natural Act:

For industry incumbents, the problem isn’t a lack of resources or a shortage of human creativity, but a dearth of pro-innovation values, processes and practices.


our organizations have efficiency DNA.  Operational goals like productivity, predictability and alignment are woven deeply into management systems and processes.  Innovation, experimentation and risk-taking—not so much. Until we solve this DNA-level problem, rule-bending innovation, when it happens at all, will occur in spite of the system rather than because of it.

I wish Oscar Mead and his TeamO venture all the best for the future. I hope he can be successful with it, and avoids repeating the mistakes of the incumbents he is disrupting today.


One response to “A serious side to industry incumbents and their inability to innovate”

  1. New on my blog > A serious side to industry incumbents and their inability to innovate http://t.co/sONHJ1wd

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