Peter Berger is Director of Innovation at EmbraerX, a disruptive innovation group inside Embraer, the world’s third-biggest maker of aircraft. Among EmbraerX’s projects is development of EVTOLs — electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles — in collaboration with Uber.
Building the Right Team
We were fortunate by both circumstances and plan to have an inside-outside team that is composed of a certain number of outsiders, as well as a certain number of…people who have been in the organization a long time, and have very good networks and a clear understanding of internal processes. So that allows us a great combination of internal know-how, but also the external viewpoint that certain things just don’t have to be the way they are…
There was a recognition that … just bringing a bunch of people in from around the company and then just asking them “innovate” was an unrealistic and unreasonable expectation. There needed to be an outsider’s perspective… We’re constantly challenging convention. The core team is about seven. …
Aircraft companies make long bets that take a long time to bring products to market. So [transformational innovation is] something that we were more comfortable with. I would make a recommendation that you always look for relatively early wins. However, I think it’s important to think big, because one of the things that we found…is that because we’ve articulated a longer-term vision that has a strong foundation in the organization’s strategy… it has provided us with a lot of cachet… [W]e can be looked at like, “Oh, this is even though this is a fairly small team, this is a very well thought-out strategy. And this is a product that has a tremendous opportunity.”
We’re off the balance sheet, in the sense that, just like every other unit in the organization, we have to compete for budget…every single year, there is no amazing grant. The core team has a small budget that focuses on seed projects and ideas. However, those projects, once they get to a certain level of maturity…they have to compete, along with everything else in the company. [It’s] our job to make the business case. It’s our job to articulate the opportunity. It’s our job to educate the organization about competitive risk.
[Y]our job as an innovation group is to essentially empower the rest of the organization to think differently. … Be helpful. It sounds really simple. But when you’re interacting with external startups…[and] when you’re working with internal business units — be helpful. I think that there is this always this continuous existential concern about your innovation organization. … It’s amazing how not just goodwill, but opportunities arise from just being helpful… Same thing with working with businesses units… [W]hether it’s, the business unit needs a bit of feedback on something, whether the business unit needs to use your office.. Groups have reached out and they said, “Oh, hey, can we use your conference room? … Can you speak to this?” No problem. “Would you mind meeting with [us]?” No problem. … [I]t’s very little output. But in the grand scheme of just putting it out there and creating opportunities, you never know what’s going to pay you back.