Innovation Leadership & How to Build the Ideal Innovation Team – Part 2 of 2

April 7, 2017

Building a team for innovation? Wish you could get tips from an experienced innovation leader about how to structure teams for performance and results? In part 2 of this series on building the ideal innovation team, Kaleidoscope VP of R&D, Medical, Michael Clem DVM, MS, shares his insights and best practices. In this article, we’ll look at a “category structure” for lean-type startups. This is a different perspective from the “functional structure” for building the ideal innovation teams covered in part 1. (5-minute read.) Here’s Dr. Clem:

Clinical, Technical, Commercial and Organizational Considerations

Over the course of my 25 years working on and leading teams engaged in medical device development, I have experienced a variety of approaches to staffing the ideal innovation team.

In Part 1 of this series, I described a “functional approach” based on key technical skills team members should possess. Alternatively, in this section I describe a leaner approach based on critical categories of thinking required for medical device development.

In a lean startup environment, you can’t always access or afford all of the specific skills you might desire. At the same time, you do need to ensure your team is prepared to address the clinical, technical and commercial considerations inherent in developing medical product innovations. Depending on your organization’s size, the team may also need to be prepared to address organizational variables.

Building a team to address the clinical, technical, commercial and organizational considerations of product development requires a different way of looking at the individuals you choose. Rather than focusing on a person’s primary technical skill (i.e. engineering, design, marketing), identify team members who have the breadth of experiences necessary to successfully navigate the requirements in each category of thinking. From my experience, these individuals can come from various technical backgrounds.

Let’s look at the role each category plays in medical product innovation.

Clinical Considerations

In medical device development, a deep understanding of the users and clinical problem is critical to developing successful solutions. For instance, the concept development team must understand the problem, anatomy, physiology, pathology, users, use environment and so on.

Someone on the team needs to develop this multilayered understanding. This allows the team to represent patients, physicians, other healthcare professionals and key stakeholders who will benefit from the solution.

Depending on their training and backgrounds, this in-depth clinical knowledge might be a stretch for some. But with diligent observational research, relationships with consulting subject matter experts and secondary research, this knowledge can (and must) be integrated into the team. A good scientific or clinical advisory group, composed of relevant subject matter experts, can be invaluable.

Although this clinical understanding speaks specifically to medical device development, it has an equally critical corollary in any field of innovative product development. Simply foster a deep understanding of the end users and the job(s) they are trying to accomplish.

Some methods and tools that can help develop this knowledge include:

  • Ethnography and customer observation
  • Regulatory assessments
  • Procedure maps
  • Clinical stakeholder assessment

Commercial Considerations

Much like fostering an understanding of clinical considerations in your team members, integrating commercial considerations is highly important. Even if your innovation team is staffed exclusively with engineers or individuals with technical backgrounds, someone on the team needs to be ready and able to put on a business thinking hat. Ideally, this individual would come from a business or marketing background or have additional experience in these fields.

Examples of commercial considerations the team should address include:
•Customer value proposition
•Claims exploration
•Competitive assessment
•Business plan development

Innovation teams that fail to incorporate these commercial considerations in developing their solutions run the risk of creating wonderful technical solutions that the market will not embrace for any number of reasons.

Tools to help make sure the innovation team addresses these considerations include:
•Concept selection criteria
•Concept exploratory research
•Customer segmentation and persona development
•Financial modeling

Assuming you can integrate a business or marketing person onto your innovation team (highly recommended), they should engage in all aspects of team activities. From user and problem understanding, to brainstorming and concept selection, to final design and launch planning – their business acumen and insights will help shape winning concepts. Gaining early marketing input and forcing tough decisions and trade-offs early in development will lead to more robust designs and less reworks later in the project.

In his New York Times bestseller, The Lean Startup, Eric Ries explains the equal value of the commercial aspects of product development.

“I have always worked on the product development side of my industry; my partners and bosses were managers or marketers, and my peers worked in engineering and operations. […] Back in 2004, Steve [Blank] had just begun preaching a new idea: the business and marketing functions of a startup should be considered as important as engineering and product development and therefore deserve an equally rigorous methodology to guide them.”

Technical Considerations

It goes without saying that one must address technical considerations and incorporate them into concept and product designs.

Conversely, having a technical team invest heavily in proving technical feasibility without having a good sense of market potential and acceptability also would not make good business sense.

The ideal innovation team has engineers and designers experienced in Design Thinking. Mature Design Thinking teams incorporate deep customer understanding or clinical considerations, as well as business understanding, into solution development. Just as the team should include marketing in technical activities, they should also include technical personnel in traditional marketing activities, such as:
•Claims validation
•Intellectual property mapping
•Development of product requirements
•Risk assessment

Organizational Considerations

Teams that incorporate the ability to address clinical, technical and commercial considerations should anticipate success. However, the ideal innovation team still needs to include one last set of considerations: Organizational considerations.

Particularly for innovation teams in large organizations, failure to address organizational considerations can lead to solutions not embraced company-wide. A worst-case scenario would be a “skunk-works” innovation team: one which works in secret from the rest of the organization. The team could suddenly present a killer product with the rest of the organization unprepared for it. Having had no idea what was being developed, the larger organization will likely question its viability, fit with their customers, manufacturability – you name it.

Large organizations generally don’t like surprises. Include an innovation team member(s) skilled in bringing the rest of the organization along on an innovation journey. These individuals must skillfully navigate corporate processes and requirements for acceptance of their team’s developments when ready. At the same time, this individual needs to be able to provide cover so the innovation team has the freedom to pursue unconventional approaches and develop unique solutions to customer needs. In the organizational category, the question to address is: How do you bring the rest of the organization along with you, while not letting them get in the way of “new and different”?

Even in smaller organizations, the ability to address organizational considerations can be important. In start-ups, the organizational category is exemplified by investor communications.

Creating the ideal innovation team is not just having individuals showing up for work in their functional hat. Ideal cross functional teams need to put on other hats to adopt the thinking of their teammates.

Again, Ries has something to say on this matter in The Lean Startup.

“For example, consider the recommendation that you build cross-functional teams and hold them accountable to what we call learning milestones instead of organizing your company into strict functional departments (marketing, sales, information technology, human resources, etc.) that hold people accountable for performing well in their specialized areas […] When people are used to evaluating their productivity locally, they feel that a good day is one in which they did their job well all day. […] Learning, by contrast, is frustratingly intangible. The Lean Startup asks people to start measuring their productivity differently.”

As described by Reis, people will likely resist organizational change and engaging in other aspects of the innovation process, under the assumption that they are less productive this way. But as Reis points out, “The goal of a startup is to figure out the right thing to build—the thing customers want and will pay for—as quickly as possible.”

This strategy of employing an organizational structure that utilizes cross-functional teams works for both large corporations and start-ups. Any business of any size set on innovating should incorporate these principles.

Moreover, companies can also employ the use of specific tools, such as animations and visualization, to help communicate their vision and drive stakeholder alignment.

The Ideal Innovation Teams

At Kaleidoscope, a company fortified in and committed to continuous innovation, we have found that these principles, and others like our Ships and Castles methodology, can help businesses create products and services more quickly and efficiently, and with better results that are in line with what customers actually want.

About the Author: Mike Clem

Vice President of Research and Development, Medical, Mike Clem, DVM, MS, thrives at the juncture of medical technology and clinical understanding. From his training as a veterinary surgeon through more than 20 years with Johnson& Johnson, Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Ethicon and Cordis, he has developed innovative solutions to complex customer problems. He covers medical device design for Kaleidoscope.


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