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April 27, 2021
Industry Trends

Earlier this month, I was reading Martin Lindstrom’s latest book, The Ministry of Common Sense. Lindstrom is the founder and chairman of a branding and culture transformation firm. In the book, Lindstrom describes a thought experiment he used when working with Maersk executives as a way for them to look at the future of their business. He asked them “What would Maersk look like if it was acquired by Uber?” This forced the executives to think outside the box and jumped their mindset further along their digital transformation journey. So to the shipbuilding executives, I ask “what would your shipyard look like if it was acquired?”

Why does it work?

Maersk and Uber are both specialists in logistics. One transports good around the world, the other people across a city, but the way they consider their business has been radically different. Thinking about your own organization from a radically different frame of reference removes the traditionally incremental view on progress. When working from within an organization, at almost every level, progress and change happen slowly. This is not a bad thing from a business point of view, but it can limit how often innovative ideas bubble up to the surface.

What if your shipyard was acquired by SpaceX?

The core goals of a shipyard and SpaceX are very similar: build extremely complex assets that fulfill the requirements of their mission. In both cases, no two vessels are the same, and design, engineering, and construction all occur simultaneously. At a high level, there are two key themes that would influence the shipyard in question.

Consistency across mission, strategy, and innovation

Translating a lofty goal into something an organization can rally around and work together to achieve is one of Elon Musk’s strong suits. SpaceX’s lofty mission is “making humanity multiplanetary.” For every team working on a project at SpaceX, what they are helping create is clear. This trickles down into the strategies and innovations that are implemented to reach the ultimate goal. For SpaceX, one of those key strategies was focusing on mass-market commercial spaceflight through cost-saving innovations such as reusing rockets. Each announcement, prototype, press release, test, and successful launch brings them closer to that goal. Everything is unified, and the organization is not pulled in too many multiple directions.

A SpaceX acquired shipyard would therefore need to build a similar connective link between their goal, strategy, and the innovations they implement. Denis Morais often touches on how influential the mindset of shipbuilding leadership is, and it’s because it trickles down and influences the entire organization. It’s not necessary to have as far-flung a goal as SpaceX, but it would have to be aspirational. Teams will rally and innovate more readily if they are coming to work every day to “keep the North moving” rather than build any old icebreaker.

Thinking holistically and for the future

Another strength of SpaceX has been thinking holistically and planning for the long term. The cost-saving strategy that centers around the re-use of rockets went far beyond just that. Across the entire business, from development to operations to engineering, the business was structured in order to minimize overhead and speed up how quickly it was possible to iterate and produce new vessels. The long-term viability of the business, and whether they can achieve their lofty goal, depends on keeping costs down. This approach is in contrast to the piece-meal and marginal approach many large enterprises take when they look at reducing costs.

It’s difficult to imagine what a wholesale overhaul would look like to your shipyard. But it’s likely that if your organization was starting from scratch, departments and processes would be organized differently from how they are now. Often, these large changes are not made after the fact because they are complex or involve multiple parties, but long-term, they would be extremely valuable.

Looking beyond short-term easy wins and towards the future of the industry opens up opportunities for stability in the long-term. Understanding how the market is changing for the long term and what your customers will require from you can push your shipyard ahead of the competition. Recognizing the technologies and strategies which can be implemented today in order to be the first to satisfy what your clients demand tomorrow opens up the organization’s outlook towards the future.

Picture your shipyard

What would your shipyard look like if it was acquired by SpaceX or any other innovative company that you admire? Even if it a company in a completely different industry, there are lessons that can be applied to shipbuilding. Or, for even more fun, picture how another company would change if they were acquired by your shipyard. Would the way your organization approaches business challenges benefit or hinder the acquired company?

It’s important that as our industry becomes more digitally mature, we do not simply maintain our existing processes and routines as they have been for decades. By taking the time to picture what a radical shift will look like for your shipyard, the range of what you actually can reasonably change and improve expands. The shipbuilders who work towards a clear goal and embrace holistic, forward-thinking innovation are best positioned to be successful in the future.

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