From The Editor | April 1, 2014

The Toxic Killers Of Innovation — And 3 Simple Rules For Avoiding Them

By Jim Pomager, Executive Editor

Toxic Killers Of Innovation

Meet Pete Rosencrans. Pete's an R&D design engineer at a medical device maker, and he’s been tasked with overseeing the research, ideation, and design for a new medical device. He’s faced with gathering input from numerous stakeholders and incorporating it into a final design that pleases everyone. Oh, and his boss wants the device to look great and be fully functional within a matter of months.

Sound familiar?

While to many of you it probably does, Pete Rosencrans doesn’t actually exist. He’s a fictional character, the protagonist of a series of comedic sketches performed during the MD&M West conference by a two-man “cast” from (real-life) medical device development firm Kablooe Design. Part of a presentation called Design Driven Innovation: Removing the Toxic Killers of Healthy Innovation, the three short skits starred Kablooe senior design manager Brian Mullins as Pete, and president Tom KraMer as the dozen or so costumed folks with whom Pete interacted (everyone from a wig-wearing marketing manager to cigar chomping executive). Sadly, poor Pete managed to commit every innovation sin imaginable, much to the amusement of the audience.

What follows is rundown of all the “toxic killers of innovation” (as the Kablooe Players called them) that Pete bumbled into during his 30 minutes of fame. The list is broken down into the three phases of product development where the killers most often rear their ugly heads: research, ideation, and design. And while knowledge of these hazards is a solid first step to eliminating them from your process, the Kablooe team also shared three simple rules for healthy innovation in each of the three phases.

Toxic Killers In The Research Phase

  • Asking marketing for general information about user needs, rather than specifics
  • Relying on the personal opinion of marketing person
  • Making predictions based on your own personal opinion
  • Accepting hearsay as fact
  • Asking questions that are too broad
  • Making decisions based on spoken opinion, rather than observed behavior
  • Allowing yourself to be influenced by a personal desire to benefit certain silos within the company

Avoid these pitfalls by sticking to an eight-step universal job map and by not being afraid to get your hands dirty, KraMer said. Get into the operating room to see how devices are being used in practice. And while you’re there, follow these three simple rules for observational research:

  1. Bring two other people with you, if you can all fit into the space comfortably. One of you should shoot video and take photos, another should ask questions and take general notes, and the other should record observations in the job map.
  2. Have the right person ask the right questions. Questions should only be asked by a trained individual who is skilled at asking questions. Ask users what they are doing and why they are doing it, using open-ended questions that encourage users to share feelings (rather than either-or and other leading questions).
  3. Record all observed and spoken pain points.

Toxic Killers In The Ideation Phase

  • Doing all the ideation by yourself
  • Being a negative idea-killer (instead of being open to any/all suggestions)
  • Projecting your likes/dislikes on the users
  • Falling prey to the “not invented here” syndrome (i.e. rejecting an idea because you didn’t come up with it)
  • Doing detailed engineering work as ideation

Kablooe’s simple rules for healthy ideation are:

  1. Brainstorm lots of ideas based on the design inputs, and then downselect based on real need and potential value.
  2. Get the remaining ideas into visual form by sketching concepts in three waves, downselecting further with each wave.
  3. "Protocept" the final concepts, making rough prototypes out of everyday materials like duct tape and rubber bands. (Hold off on more sophisticated prototypes for now.)

Toxic Killers In The Design Phase

  • Treating industrial design as superficial or cosmetic ("lipstick on a pig")
  • Engineering before design work
  • Assuming a design style based on personal likes
  • Assuming a copycat design will apply
  • Assuming user preferences with no data

Instead, KraMer suggested following three simple rules for design development, reminding his audience that "design is very much a feasibility exercise":

  1. Combine all the best features (from the ideation phase survivors) that meet design inputs into one concept.
  2. Create images that are simple enough to quickly get the ideas across, but developed enough to describe the main design features.
  3. Get buy-in from upper management before getting into the gory details (i.e., do the minimum amount of engineering work needed to get sign-off).

While Kablooe’s satire was certainly entertaining, it carried a serious message for medical device designers — that the product development path is strewn with many traps and snares. Fall prey to one or more of these dangers and your design could go sideways in a hurry, failing to deliver real value to users and wasting your company’s precious time and money. Don’t end up like Pete. Beware the toxic killers of innovation.