14 MIN READ

Innovation is…

You’d be excused for thinking that innovation is challenging, especially in the medical devices sector, a rigorously regulated environment, dominated by process and the need to assess and mitigate risk. It’s not the most nurturing environment for brave new ideas so who could blame some companies for seeing these obstacles as an excuse to stay safe, only evolving products ‘little by little’ when there is real evidence to do so.

But staying safe could be fatal in an ever-changing world. Web savvy patients are becoming more empowered, pressure is on to reduce healthcare costs, blockbuster drugs are coming ‘off patent’, budgets are restricted, regulations are evolving, and new technologies are constantly emerging – how do you innovate to keep ahead of the competition?

As product developers in the medical sector, it’s easy to think of innovation as another process that needs defining. But to see it that way could be detrimental to success, as Sir George Buckley, CEO of 3M, said recently: “When we started to define an innovation process it was some of the darkest times at 3M.”

So if innovation is not a process — what is it? We prefer to think of it as ‘a state of mind’. Sure, not everyone is naturally ‘innovative’ – and some people are far better at it than others – but with the right mind-set, a good toolkit, a mix of people to collaborate with and a nurturing environment, most people could have a damn good go. So how can you lay the foundations to allow innovation to flourish?

There are many influencing factors that can encourage good innovation and it’s often a combination of these which help to spark creativity and ultimately lead to success. These factors are applicable, not just in the medical device sector, but in many other fields and we can, and should, learn from innovations occurring in industries outside of our own.

Here are 10 different factors which we believe will influence, encourage, contribute to, and help define what innovation is, whatever field you work in:


“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein

– All in the mind

Innovation is about mind-set, about training your brain to think and see things differently and constantly asking ‘why..?’, ‘how’ and ‘what if..?’. It’s not just thinking outside the box – but tearing it up and trying something else altogether. As Christian Rangen of Engage//Innovate commented it’s about encouraging a range of more open mind-sets, from ‘dreaming bigger’ to ‘pirate thinking’.


“All the effort in the world won’t matter if you’re not inspired.” Chuck Palahniuk

– About inspiring

In order to innovate you need to inspire. Red Bull is one example of a truly inspirational company. It was started in 1987 by Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz who was inspired by a pre-existing Thai energy drink named Krating Daeng. He had a vision for the product, created Red Bull, and then set about creating innovative ways to increase global brand awareness. Red Bull is now snapping at the heels of Pepsi and Coca Cola; it has become one of the world’s most popular drinks, with two teams in Formula One, and has re-written the rule book on how to sell a product by focusing on the drink’s energy-giving properties while projecting an edgy, high-adrenaline image. This has been achieved by events and activities ranging from support for spinal-injury research to sponsoring Felix Baumgartner’s free fall from the edge of space. We can learn a lot about how to inspire people to ‘think differently’ from companies like Red Bull.


“If we’d asked people what they’d wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’.” Henry Ford

– For people

When innovating new strategies, ideas and products, especially in a sector such as medical, it is crucial to keep all relevant stakeholders at the forefront of your mind – from patients and health care professionals to hospital porters. In what can be a highly stressful and risky environment, the needs of those for whom you are innovating are of utmost importance and are often the source of innovative ideas.

One problem, however, is that people don’t often know what they want until you show it to them. Innovation using standard market research techniques, such as focus groups, can therefore be tricky as people can only tell you about what they know right now. Successful innovations anticipate what’s on the horizon and second guess what people will want in the future.

In the medical sector, patients are becoming more empowered and increasingly act just as any other consumer. They consider their medical devices in the context of the other products which surround them, so macro product trends and trends affecting other industries need to be considered. Even the passive term ‘patient’ may soon become outdated. Some techniques, such as design research, can deliver valuable insights into the contexts and scenarios in which people function – now, and possibly in the future – thereby uncovering needs that these very same people would not be able to tell you they had.

One clinic in Massachusetts has set up an innovative “Walking in the Patient’s Footsteps” programme which shadows patients throughout their health care experience. Students play a major role in the program as the clinic has found that students can be invaluable observers and listeners in ways that more experienced professionals cannot. As a result, some of the clinic’s best innovations have come from students making observations that other doctors did not.


“Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

– By people

Ultimately, innovation comes from people; people talking, or people with different backgrounds and skills, sharing ideas and experiences. Whether it’s a chance meeting over the coffee machine, a more formal creative session, or on a much bigger scale like crowdsourcing – collaboration allows people to bounce ideas around and build on ideas and experiences of others. Take Great Ormond Street Hospital. The neonatal cardiac surgery success rate was lower than expected and they couldn’t work out why. Investigation showed inconsistencies in the handover procedure between the theatre and neonatal unit. Inspired by the co-ordination, discipline and ability of Formula One pit stop crews to seamlessly service a car in seven seconds flat, doctors collaborated with McLaren and Ferrari managers, and an industrial psychologist, to completely transform the surgery handover process. This team of people with different backgrounds and experiences learnt from each other, implementing a change which directly saved the lives of many babies.


“[to encourage innovation]…create a highly engaging work environment that inspires employees to give the very best of themselves.” Gary Hamel

– About a stimulating environment

It’s no secret that the working environment contributes to overall happiness and creativity. Simple things such as specific zones for working, creation, relaxation and play, colour, improved lighting and ventilation, and food and drink, can all dramatically improve creativity. A free-flow environment, with ‘hot desking’ for some employees, can encourage movement around the office, increasing the chance of different people talking together, collaborating, sharing and bouncing ideas of each other. Moving away from seating by ‘sector’ and mixing staff from different disciplines, and from an environment where furniture is permanent to a space which is easier to rearrange and evolve, can significantly affect the way teams interact. These, along with visual stimulation, such as inspirational quotes and exciting objects and images, all help to get the creative juices flowing. Even taking teams outside their normal working environment can have a dramatic effect on levels of creativity.

High-tech giant Adobe recently opened a striking new building in Lehi, Utah specifically designed to create an ecology of planned and unplanned cooperation and innovation among its employees. Eighty five per cent of the interior is open workspace – with only 15% devoted to offices. The building includes a full basketball court and extensive fitness areas, pool tables, a café and eating/lounging area — all to encourage employees to meet and interact with each other. Adobe hopes that by pushing employees out of their offices, they will run into each other more often, spontaneously generating ideas and solutions.


“Anyone can look for fashion in a boutique or history in a museum. The creative explorer looks for history in a hardware store and fashion in an airport.” Robert Wieder

– About having a good toolbox

Often the hardest part of generating innovative solutions is knowing where and how to look for them, and often inspiration comes from outside your own industry.

In the late 1990s, Medtronic scientist Ken Brennan was struggling to make pacemaker leads fit into the small veins on the left side of the heart. Ken’s eureka moment came while reading a magazine article about a new material developed by NASA, designed to withstand the severe conditions in outer space – a technological advancement outside his own industry which would allow the leads to be much narrower.

In a recent development that we undertook at Team, we had to devise a way of protecting a transplantable human liver during transit. The inspiration for this came from a £5 rubber colander bought from a department store, and some plastic containers from the supermarket.

There are many creative tools out there, designed to help innovators define problems and then generate, filter and select or implement ideas – and all have their good and bad points. These create and innovation techniques can be likened to DIY tools in a toolbox, but whether you are using Lego, the innovation pyramid, analogous industries, MECE mapping, random associations or any other of the many tools available, the key to success is picking the right tool for the job.


“If at first an idea is not absurd then there is no hope for it.” Albert Einstein

– About with-holding criticism and constraints… initially

Enforcing artificial constraints can sometimes aid creativity, but in general, when coming up with ideas, withhold judgement and ignore all major commercial, regulatory and technological constraints initially and see what emerges – otherwise you might miss a great opportunity. As Lee de Forest said in 1926: “While theoretically television may be feasible, commercially and financially, I consider it an impossibility; a development of which we need waste little time dreaming”.

Focus idea creation on individual problems so that you are not overawed by the limitless possibilities, but once you’ve blown the ideas wide, add in constraints and selection criteria to help identify those that best satisfy your requirements. You may even find this a source of innovation itself! But at least you know you left no stone unturned.


“Whenever you see a successful business, someone made a courageous decision.” Peter Drucker

– About being prepared to take risks

Sometimes things don’t work out and that’s OK. We can learn from these mistakes and move on, but if you won’t try something in the first place how will you know if you’re sitting on the next big thing?

Amazon.com, now one of the world’s largest online retailers, started as an online bookstore, but soon diversified into DVDs, VHSs, CDs, video and MP3 downloads/streaming, software, video games, electronics, apparel, furniture, food, toys and jewellery. Over the years Amazon has tried other less successful ventures, including selling mobile homes, but it hasn’t stopped it looking at how it can use its resources to expand its business. As a result, Amazon is now also one of the largest providers of cloud computing services.

Novo Nordisk is another perfect example. In 1981, Novo was a pharmaceutical-chemical company manufacturing insulin which found anything mechanical far beyond its field of expertise. The Marketing Director had an idea for delivering incremental doses of insulin using a ‘pen’, instead of the standard syringe and vial. The company saw the potential for the product and developed a design inspired by well-known technologies including the switchboard, Leonardo Da Vinci’s ship propeller and the collapsible Chaublin clasp nut. Without in house capabilities, and unable to find suitable production partners, Novo set up its own assembly plant and based production on parts made in Denmark, Germany and Switzerland – a big risk for a pharma-chemical company. Clinical studies showed improved control and that 90% of patients preferred the new type of delivery method. The gamble had paid off and the insulin pen was born.

Imagine how different things might have been for Kodak and Nokia if they had taken more risks. Kodak had the technology for the digital camera in 1973, and Nokia tried to launch an app store well before Apple, but both were thwarted by senior management. They both had the technology, but decision makers couldn’t imagine it and weren’t prepared to take the risk.


“Design is not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.” Steve Jobs

– Good design and engineering

Creativity is thinking up new things; innovation is doing new things. For a really great idea to be realised, you need good design and engineering. Without either of these it simply won’t work. In 1978, James Dyson noticed how the air filter in the Ballbarrow spray-finishing room was constantly clogging with powder. To fix this, he designed and built an industrial cyclone tower which removed the powder particles by exerting centrifugal forces. He wondered if the same principle work in a vacuum cleaner, and five years and 5,127 prototypes later, the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner arrived. Without Dyson’s persistence, some really good engineering and a great design, Dyson vacuum cleaners would not be as successful as they are today.


“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” HM Warner, Warner Brothers 1927

– About leading from the top

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, a successful innovation company has to have innovative leaders. If senior management doesn’t have the right mind set then forget it. Look at Richard Branson… he’s a prime example of an innovative leader. He’s not afraid to take risks and learns from his mistakes, moving onwards and upwards. If he had never crashed his hot air balloon would he now be commercialising space travel?

Innovation runs right through the Virgin organisation from top to bottom, with all employees encouraged to be part of the innovation process. One recent cost saving innovation came from a member of Virgin Atlantic’s cabin crew whose idea was to pour the champagne in first class then offload the bottles before the planes took off, thus saving weight and making a minimal reduction in fuel costs. Multiply this saving by the number of flights taking off every day, and the other ideas that it might provoke, and you start to see that any idea, no matter how small can be a winner. Individuals, however, need to feel empowered to make suggestions – much more likely when top management are ambassadors for innovation.


So there you have it. These ten factors are just some of many which could be used to encourage creativity and successful innovation, and are among those we have found to be the most successful. The medical device industry will always be a challenging sector in which to innovate, and we know that different things work for different organisations, so we invite you to share your own ideas around innovation with us, especially what’s worked for you (or not!) in your own organisations.

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