October 2016

A different cup of tea

It's a paradox of our industry: there's hunger for innovation, but few willing to champion it. MDL CEO Derek Smith takes a view on the "first to be second" approach to new technology - over a cup of tea...

It’s tough to be innovative.

It’s not so much the coming up with new ideas; it’s finding a champion willing to be the first - that’s the tricky bit.

The oil and gas industry has pioneered some fabulous technology over the decades, but the adoption process of “something new” has always been slow; too slow to address the major correction happening in our industry today, one could argue.

Although the sector has been calling for more innovative approaches to processes and operations, the prevailing attitude is still “first to be second”.

So, what is an innovative company to do, to bring its offering to the market? Let’s start with making a cup of tea.

You will probably be using an electric kettle: and what an iconic invention that is! It enhanced our daily tea and coffee making process so much…

But, if you think about it, whose idea was it: to mix water and electricity? And who on Earth approved such a thing…?

After all, there was the traditional, tried and tested stove-top version, so simple to use: you just stick it on top, and let it do the job.

Someone quite clever came up with the idea of a whistle for the spout, to announce the water was ready - but that wasn’t the game changer.

The true inventor was the person who said: “Let’s stick an electric element and a switch into this pot of water.”

Now, I’m sure there were plenty of heads shaking, and executive voices saying: “We’ve tried mixing water and electricity before. It didn’t end well. This ‘invention’ is not for us.”

And yet, by the end of the 19th century the electric kettle made its debut on the British market, from where it grew to its current fame.

Even though history has not named the exact person behind the invention, I can imagine their journey to success being similar to that of a truly innovative company in the oil and gas industry today.

On the one hand, we have a real drive for innovation and change; on the other, there are but a few influencers willing to pioneer it. Because, who wants to be the first company to trial a kettle with a plug?

While the focus is on (assumed) associated risks, the actual benefits go unnoticed:

  • the fact that the kettle is fully automated (less man power required to operate it and lesser chance of human error);
  • that it will only work for as long as it takes to boil the water (increased efficiency)
  • or that it will switch off automatically, without wasting any more power or evaporating water (reduced costs).

Some seem to believe the clever approach is to avoid the risk, and just stick to the tried and tested technology.

But, in fact, the truly clever people are those who recognise the risks, take a view on them, and understand how they can be mitigated.

As the electric kettle shows us, new ways can be safe, but they do pose a challenge: they require a commitment to make the change, and incorporate it into life - which also applies to business.

Those who refuse to grasp new technology are choosing the risk-free path; but also - ironically - closing the door on huge potential savings.

With innovation written into our DNA, MDL has a few success stories to tell like-minded companies - and I’d happily share those with you over a cup of tea.

Derek Smith, CEO