Meet...Marja Zonnevylle, Site Manager, Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam, and Board Member, Amsterdam Economic Board
Marja will speak about how scenario planning has helped transform Shell into an innovation and R&D powerhouse.
If you have to pick only one trait or characteristic that distinguishes innovative companies, what would it be?
Without a doubt - courage. Having an innovative idea is very simple, and there are thousands (millions?) of innovative ideas. Courage is essential for transforming an innovative idea into action, into a plan, into a tangible product or a novel service. Without courage, innovative ideas easily become abandoned orphans, and new opportunities for courageous stepparents!
What companies do you most admire and why?
Of course, Shell! Who would think of putting a whole LNG plant on a 488metre ship, some 30% larger than an U.S. aircraft carrier? Or building a plant for transforming natural gas into diesel, so large that we first had to build a city for the construction workers! Those are both crazy ideas, but this is exactly what we are doing. Then there are obvious choices like Apple. I'll let others talk about that.
Closer to me personally, what about our own Dutch Albert Heijn, who has transformed shopping from dull daily groceries, to easy, nutritious and exotic meals, home delivery, online recipes, renewing the typical Dutch saving scheme concept into a virally popular mega-success, and now acquiring bol.com. As a working mom, AH's innovations have made my life easier, and that makes me happy!
What's the biggest mistake companies are making which is preventing them from innovating effectively?
The key word here is 'effectively'! Effective innovation requires a vision of the 'to be' state in its full complexity and uncertainty. The 'to be' state will be influenced more by the changes in the world, than by any one individual innovation a company makes. A key mistake is to innovate for a linear extrapolation of 'now' rather than for an uncertain and changeable future. It is key to play with the options that the future could be, and position innovations robustly in this palette of opportunity.
What is the favourite innovation project that you have worked on? Why does is stand out?
There are too many choices! I'll pick one in which I was instrumental at all stages, from conception to maturation - noting that at Shell this is rather unusual, we tend to move on jobs every 4 to 6 years, compared to product lifecycle times sometimes approaching 20 or 30+ years.
For my 3rd job at Shell, I was tasked with inventing a number of new 'reactor internals' for specific oil refining processes. Essentially these are like the insides of your coffee machine, assuring good contact, residence time, temperature, and so on, of oil streams to catalyst particles – rather than coffee grounds and water. This was completely new to me, but within a year or two I had several patents, and kept inventing. My method was to peel off the layers of complexity, simplify the problem to its basics, avoid combining too many features to assure that my designs would be robust to change. Although this was a typical engineering problem - e.g. very practical – I used the simplification concepts I had learned whilst doing my PhD in theoretical chemistry – e.g. rather esoterical ideas. These kind of cross-over experiences and ideas are at the heart of many innovations. Later I went on to build a good business for Shell from my inventions, combining being lead inventor with running a project and commercial team – a global success story.
This is also innovation, here the methodology is courage, tenacity and believing in the concept so as to convince bosses to support me, talented people to work for me, and customers to make major investments on the basis of my know-how. One particular situation I will never forget: after a year of tough technical discussions, I convinced a particularly sceptical customer to implement a totally novel and expensive concept. The last few weeks and days prior to their pushing the "on" button made me realize exactly what the Dutch expression "peentjes zweten" means – wow that was painful! And yes it worked!