Markus Durstewitz - Airbus

Innovations: of Lateral Thinkers and Rebels

Charlotte Ebert
5 pictures
6 minutes

Many large companies are harnessing methods such as design thinking in an attempt to become more modern. Dr Markus Durstewitz is one of the design thinkers wanting to transform processes. As the Innovation Manager and Head of Design Thinking at Airbus, he ensures that innovations take place. We spoke to him about what he needs to fulfil his role and what separates a good idea from an innovation.

Interview with Dr Markus Durstewitz

Mr Durstewitz, what is your background?

I started off studying aerospace technology in Stuttgart. I find anything that flies exciting. The course was based on mechanical engineering, which tends to be very dry. The benefit of studying aeronautics was, on the other hand, that you could get to grips with exciting application fields and take interesting elective subjects beyond the horizon of mechanical engineering: physiognomy for engineers or philosophy, for example.

Later in my degree, I attended the French Civil Aviation University in Toulouse. During my time there, I focussed on data processing. At that time, we had a project to develop modular concepts for micro satellites: you have to remember that each satellite was a masterpiece of craftsmanship forty years ago. However, we wondered how individual modules could be re-used for entire series, and created a foundation for this with object-oriented data models.

With my subsequent PhD, I ultimately ended up at Airbus. Here, I was given the opportunity to take a further step – towards ‘cognitive engineering’. This involves better understanding human-technology interactions on the cognitive level and attuning interfaces appropriately. This applies particularly to configuring intelligent assistant systems.

ZAL Center of Applied Aeronautical Research
Markus Durstewitz’s innovation department is located at the Center of Applied Aeronautical Research in Hamburg / © WingMag

In this context, cognitive processes in the interaction between users and a system come under focus: what is the pilot thinking when he or she is operating levers, or looking at clocks or monitors? The context in which these processes are taking place is decisive: is it before the flight? Is it during the take-off phase or in cruise mode? The psychological effects as well as each cognitive workload need to be considered too.

Intelligent assistant systems are able to anticipate the next expected steps and adjust the options to choose from appropriately. In each operative situation, answers are hereby proposed to fit each context and doing justice to the situation. This is the small ‘secret’ that makes the difference between delight and frustration when users operate devices. Ultimately, this leads not only to a great experience, but also to an optimum performance.

What does an Innovation Manager actually do?

My role is to manage the innovation process and the core team as the first port of call for innovation. It is a very special task to develop suitable framework conditions to enable innovations to happen.

The most important and fundamental element are the people themselves. To be successful, I have to marry the correct people to the correct ideas. I primarily have to support those people wanting to drive forward innovation. It can be assumed that five percent of people at most in a company are self-starters when it comes to innovation; 15 percent would be the absolute ceiling. Innovative people often think outside the box and disrupt ‘normal business’. They are the rebels bringing about change. My task is to create the necessary environment for these people to tap into their talent positively and to esteem such.

What separates a good idea from an innovation?

Is there an undisputed definition of innovation?

Innovation always depends on the context in which I find myself. Let’s stick to a corporate setting. For some, introducing digital business processes would be an innovation in itself. Maybe a different company would already be working like this as standard; ‘innovation’ would be a different step here. That is to say: what some people view as innovation may be run of the mill to others. You shouldn’t be scared of copying. It’s about placing your own mark on the implementation.

A good innovation is a good idea shipped

Tim Brown

Looking back on your professional life: what was the best mistake you ever made?

Mistakes are not something bad per se. You have to understand mistakes to learn from them. I believe in the principle of lifelong learning and am already eager to get the next opportunity to learn. It’s of course ideal if you make a mistake early on, so that you have a chance to make amends.

I believe that I made my ‘best’ mistake when I was a young, impatient person who switched to a different company department. I thought that I had nothing more to learn in the old department. Shortly after my move, the new department was dissolved. Should I have had more sticking power in my old role? No, my decision led me to fall into the newly established digitalisation and innovation field. That is the serendipity principle: discovering something by accident that you weren’t looking for. A career can be vitalised by such chance happenings.

What type of books do you read or which podcast can you recommend?

Science fiction is a genre I really like. I can recommend the classics by Isaac Asimov. And I tend to read specialist books. My go-to reading material includes the ‘Design Thinking Playbook’, ‘Business Model Generation’ by Alexander Osterwalder or ‘Sprint’ by Jake Knapp. In practical terms, the ‘Business Model Navigator’ from St Gallen has also stood the test of time. If I listen to podcasts, then it’s ‘Sendung mit der Maus’ – with my children.

Who would you like to sit next to on an aeroplane?

There are many interesting people I would like to meet, but I can only choose one. I think that someone like Mark Zuckerberg would be interesting. Or Elon Musk. They are very polarising personalities, strongly influencing the public perception of innovation today. But then again, they’d be flying in their private jets.

Markus Durstewitz - Innovations - Airbus

Photographer s.h.schroeder / © WingMag

by Charlotte Ebert

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