In this article about innovation leadership and the ideal innovation team, Kaleidoscope VP of R&D, Medical, Michael Clem DVM, MS examines the functional and cross-functional expertise needed to drive the best innovation resources to turn creative ideas into quality products that benefit consumers.
People often think of Thomas Edison when they think of innovation. This focus on the single inventor can sometimes give the wrong impression of how successful innovations take place. In reality, Edison surrounded himself with teams of creative individuals. It has been said that innovation is a team sport, requiring teamwork.
But how do you approach staffing your ideal team to drive innovation in your company?
Perhaps the most important aspect of innovation leadership and building the ideal innovation team is to foster cross-functionality. Really focus on getting people who serve specific functions in the team, but who also have a shared vision and shared incentives. This ideal innovation team is not just assigned to a common project, not just sitting together. The ideal innovation team is really working together and pushing boundaries to take on additional roles outside of their areas of specialization.
From a functional expertise perspective, here are the essential functions or team members:
Engineers bring technical expertise in product design and development to the team. Over time, I came to broadly characterize two types of engineers as critical to successful development. Both types have their own inherent strengths and are equally valuable.
These are the creative “inventive engineers” who are always coming up with new ideas. These individuals are extremely important to have on the team, but often hard to keep focused. They like to move on to the next challenge or exciting problem to solve. These out-of-the-box thinkers come up with new solutions to break new ground.
These are the heavy lifters who are needed to follow through to make the big, creative ideas become a reality. They work out the problems, build the prototypes and run the tests. They are essential to getting to final designs that can be manufactured. This is certainly not to say that these individuals are not creative or that they do not also come up with great ideas. They just tend to excel in dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s” required to advance a radical idea.
These team members capture opportunities as defined by Thomas Edison when he said, “Opportunity is missed by most people, because it shows up dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Occasionally, someone will find an individual engineer who embodies both characteristics, but in my experience, most people excel in one direction or the other.
Fifteen years ago, it was not the norm for engineers to do their own CAD. However, the digital design world has evolved and this is no longer the case. With that said, having a dedicated CAD designer on the team can free engineers to concentrate on other tasks. Otherwise, engineers would be devoting “screen time” to refining concept design for rapid prototyping. In many instances, a seasoned CAD designer can fulfill the role of the “closer” or heavy-lifting engineer. They will build models, test and refine designs for manufacturing.
Industrial Design is an extremely valuable skill to have at all stages of concept development. Industrial designers bring the Design Thinking process to life. Beginning with understanding customer needs, translating insights into concept design, and integrating human factors into usability, their work is essential. Good industrial design work isn’t possible when the designers are brought in at the end to “make it look good.” It must be incorporated from the beginning of the process.
Early in the process, the team needs to be thinking about the market and whether their ideas would fit in the current market environment. Marketers and business people know what sells and how to make the case for the product. In many companies, they often drive a project and should always be included in discussions and planning from the outset.
“Hard work is still wasted on features that don’t make the marketing headlines,” says GV Design Partner Jake Knapp in an article on product design and marketing. “Instead of the icing on the cake, I like to think of marketing as the sugar in the batter. You’ve got to get it in before the cake gets baked.”
In medical device design and development, the team should include an expert with in-depth clinical understanding. This is often the end-user physician. In addition to physicians though, it is crucial that the team also consider inputs from the entire healthcare ecosystem. This includes personnel who may be involved in the purchase, such as the value-analysis committee. (Learn more about the essential role of a value analysis committee.) Also the project needs to consider those involved in the preparation or use of the final product, such as technicians and nursing staff. This clinical knowledge may come from an individual clinician or a physician advisory panel, augmented by formal usability and concept research with users.
In an innovation setting, there will need to be additional support functions. Some of these important roles might be contracted from the outside, depending on the size of the organization. These roles include legal advisors, HR professionals, finance professionals, IT professionals, regulatory affairs, quality and operations management professionals.
Ideally, the team leader should come from one of the functional roles on the team, engineering, marketing or design. The team leader serves as the main point of contact with management and other entities that need to be engaged to keep the project moving forward, and they must be able to recruit.
With the team leader also playing a functional role on the team. They are more like a “Player Coach,” providing direction while making meaningful contributions to the advancement of the project. At the same time, every member of a high performance innovation team needs to be a leader in his or her own right.
Transitional Innovation Leadership
In this model, leadership may be transitional. Marketing and Industrial Design may lead the early stages of the project. For example, in the phases of understanding the customer needs, conducting market research and developing insights that shape the work. Later, leadership may transition to Engineering and Design leading during the ideation and concept development phases. At that time, Marketing then focuses on developing the business case for moving forward. With concepts in hand, leadership may transition back to Marketing for final validation research, pricing and launch planning.
Regardless of which function is taking the lead for a project phase, the best innovation comes when other functions are included throughout. This helps everyone to better understand what needs to be done from a big picture perspective. This also helps teams feel more invested in the outcome as well. Cross functional teams mean getting rid of information silos and opening communication.
These ideal innovation teams can also be thought of as “hot teams.” These embody the idea of a cohesive group, working well together. Here the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The ideal innovation team does not need people who can only work in their specific areas of expertise, but who exhibit cross-functionality. People who don’t fear trying new roles. These individuals possess certain characteristics, such as their abilities to work together as a team. They also use their leadership skills to advance the work before them, take directives from management and embrace a fluctuating team structure.
They should also possess the tact and ability to navigate corporate processes to accomplish their team’s goals. But, be highly focused on reaching these relevant milestones in line with the end objective(s).
All things considered, ideal innovation teams need to have the right combination of skill sets, and must be willing to work collaboratively.
For those interested in learning more about how to form the ideal innovation team, I have written an e-book with input from my innovation-minded colleagues at Kaleidoscope that is free and available for download here. In the Ships and Castles Model I describe details on how to navigate front-end innovation efforts while fortifying an existing product line.
Ideal Innovation Team Sources
- “Rapid Team Learning: Lessons from Team New Zealand America’s Cup Campaign,”
by Kambiz Maani + Campbell Benton
- Ships and Castles Model: 7 Steps for Fortifying Your Base While Navigating Front-End Navigation
- GV: How to build an opinionated product: design the marketing first
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.
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
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