Positive Worst Case Scenario (Episode 34)

Interview with Pinakin Chaubal, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at ArcelorMittal.

He said it with a smile: “What could go wrong? What could go wrong? What could possibly go wrong?”

To continuously be asking what could go wrong, with a positive outlook on life, is what I learned about innovation from Pinakin Chaubal.

Pinakin Chaubal is Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel producer, with an annual crude steel production of 92.5 million metric tonnes and 190,000 employees around the world. The company is ranked 120th in the 2019 Fortune Global 500 ranking of the world’s largest corporations.

If you think “steel is steel”, think again. Steel has gone through some amazing developments in the last few decades. Pinakin, who has has held numerous positions in R&D for more than 30 (!) years, estimated that steel for automotive has become something like 3-4 times stronger (!) during this time. This is mind-blowing, especially considering that humans invented steel more than 2300 years ago. And not only did steel become multiple times stronger in these last few years, it also became more easy to work with at the same time.

Why, you ask? Because of the threat from aluminium …

The steel industry realised that they might get kicked out from the car companies as aluminium became stronger and stronger and that threat pushed the steel industry to drastically innovate.

Being pushed to innovate by the competition is nothing special. But what makes the steel industry interesting is how they were forced to innovate. Steel is a low margin business, but a high investment industry. To build a new steel mill costs billions (with a “B”) and they are expected to run for decades, and with such low margins there is not a lot of wiggle room for how you build them.

So innovation happening in the steel industry often has to happen within the framework of the existing steel mills.

And that is where the “Positive-what could go wrong-mentality” becomes so important. When you build a new steel mill you have to imagine what the world will look like 30 years from now and build accordingly, so that you have prepared for what ever innovation might be need to be added later.

It’s like explorers planning an exploration for months into unknown territory. Or a space probe to Mars. They have to think of all the things that could go wrong, because once you are off there is no turning back to get the supplies you forgot to bring… Expeditions like that demand a different kind of mindset than a short walk in the park.

It needs a mindset of “positive worse-case-scenario”.

Worse case scenario, because you do not want to find yourself in a pickle later on when there is no-one there to help you, and you can not go back anymore.

Positive, because if you do not think you will make it, you will not go off exploring at all.

Pinakin told me: “The trick is to get people to keep having a positive mindset even as we keep throwing all these “what could go wrong-questions” at them. As soon as you put negativity into your head the brain shuts down and innovation dies.”

When I asked him for tricks to ensure a “positive negativity mindset” Pinakin mentioned:

A) The need for a strong vision, so that people have something to believe in.

B) An agile mindset of being able to change your mind.

Both answers I would expect from an innovation expert. But then he also added: “It’s not about executing caution. When you are cautions you think small.”

I found that very interesting. A “what could go wrong-mentality” should not be seen as cautious – but as bold. To boldly go where no-one has ever gone before, but making sure we have thought about all the things that could go wrong before we do.

Pinakin again: “A person who is making sure you have thought about all that could go wrong is actually digging deeper into the problem. It’s about curiosity. It’s about being inquisitive. They are not looking for small problems to solve, they are making sure we can reach the big vision. It’s important that this mindset is not used to put someone else’s idea down, but instead is used to take it further.”

If we think of innovation as an exploration – and I think we should! – then it makes total sense to apply the mindset of an explorer, who goes through all the things that can go wrong, while keeping a positive mindset about where he or she will end up. Especially in industries with low margins and high investments costs, like the steel industry. That was my insights from talking to Pinakin Chaubal, the man of steel innovation.

What will be your next expedition? And what are the questions around things going wrong that you need to ask yourselves – in a positive mindset – before you embark on that journey?

Fredrik Haren – The Creativity Explorer.

Ps. The steel industry keeps innovating. Pinakin told me they have now invented steel that you can put into a microwave making the old “truth” that “you cannot put metal into a micro” suddenly become false (If you use a microwave built for metal). The advantage of a microwave that accepts steel containers? Container does not collapse on heating, food is warmed more uniformly, and packing is recyclable and more attractive.

I love when truths like that become false. We should all make an extra effort to explore those “truths” that everyone believe to be true, just because it is extra fun when they turn out to be fals




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