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 / Winter 2005 / Issue 41(originally published by Booz & Company)


Flying Blind

When people are deeply engaged in a project, they also find it difficult to appraise its progress realistically. They become true believers, and lose their objectivity. Business scholars such as Isabelle Royer of the University of Paris-Dauphine have done extensive research showing how difficult it is for managers to discontinue large-scale initiatives, even when the signs of failure become clear. They filter out the bad news, play up the good news, and continue to invest in the vain belief that a shift in the market is just around the corner. For years, British Airways and Air France would regularly avow that the Concorde would soon turn into a thriving operation.

Flights of Imagination
But although the traps that litter the path of business innovation may be intimidating, that’s no reason to abandon hope. Even the Concorde story offers an encouraging epilogue. At the Paris Air Show in June 2005, France and Japan announced ambitious plans to develop a new supersonic jet by 2015. Combining France’s experience with the SST and Japan’s skill at building powerful engines, the joint effort seems likely to overcome many of the problems that doomed the Concorde to the auction block. Recent advances in lightweight materials and engine efficiency, for example, should allow the plane to carry 300 passengers, nearly three times as many as the Concorde, with far greater fuel efficiency. That alone would make the jet’s economics much more attractive than its predecessor’s. And with business travelers flying more frequently between Europe or North America and the Far East, the demand for faster flights may surge again.

The technology and the market, in other words, may finally be ripe for the profitable launch of a supersonic passenger jet. Which brings us to the final lesson: When it comes to commercial innovation, timing is everything. Just ask Louis Blériot.

Reprint No. 05402

Author Profile:

Nicholas G. Carr ([email protected]), a contributing editor to strategy+business, is the author of Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage (Harvard Business School Press, 2004).
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