Guest Column | March 15, 2024

3 Ways The Agile Method Unlocks Rapid Innovation In Medtech

By Chris Danek, Bessel LLC

Key-Keyhole with light-GettyImages-92240543

Every team wants to innovate. Every team wants to be high performing. But in our complex industry, what tools do our teams need to actually achieve rapid innovation?

In this series, I’ve been thinking through three pillars of rapid innovation for medical device development teams. First, embrace a mindset of continuous learning to fuel your team’s capacity to iterate and innovate rapidly. Second, develop a solid technology strategy to prioritize the pieces you’ll build internally and identify what you’ll accomplish through partnerships.

Now, we’ll look to the third pillar: build a culture of agile teamwork. Let’s highlight three elements of an agile team: communication, focus, and growth.

1. Daily Huddles Develop Better Communication And Maintain Project Momentum

You’ve probably heard of daily standups — quick huddles common among development teams. They’re a daily opportunity to share what you’re working on, what’s coming next, and ways the team can help speed up the work. But do you know why they’re so important? They keep everyone moving in the same direction.

People talk a lot about the velocity of agile teams. But going fast is meaningless if you’re heading in the wrong direction. That’s why true agility is about a team’s speed and its ability to change direction. The daily huddle is a way to make frequent course corrections and to pinpoint work that will require a closer look.

Have you ever missed a bus or train by a few minutes and then waited for the next one to come? The daily standup is an opportunity for teammates to orchestrate down to an hourly basis so you don’t “miss the bus” on important handoffs and synchronization.

Here’s a concrete example. Cross-functional approvals are a formal, necessary requirement throughout the medical device development process. The daily huddle is a great tool to expedite and orchestrate these approvals when time is of the essence, such as to kick off a prototype build or verification testing. When you approve the next steps in the daily huddle, the technical teams don’t have to wait around for a document to be released.

2. Killing Deadlines Improves Focus

Here’s a great paradox of agile teamwork: to get more done in a certain time, you shouldn’t add more stringent deadlines and due dates. Instead, you should kill all the deadlines.

Don’t believe me? Think about how often you hear: “I’ll need more time. I have too much on my plate,” or “Our team has competing demands on our time, so we need to push back the development milestones.”

Most teams spend a lot of their time discussing when things will be done. Those conversations create stress and distract the team from the core development work of delivering the project.

Agile teamwork lets your development team focus on their most important work without fretting about deadlines. Agile teams are laser-focused on the most critical or hardest part of the problem. I often ask teams: “What is your next milestone?” or “How will you know when you’ve created real value?” Focus on that milestone and the steps to achieving it. Ignore everything else. You can work as a team to swarm the problem when you've identified your shared, singular focus.

Tactically, using a sprint schedule works well to make incremental progress at a regular pace. Successful sprints follow these steps to develop a shared focus – no deadlines necessary:

  1. Develop a big-picture road map. A road map is a project plan with high-level milestones and, yes, target dates. It syncs with company strategy and objectives.
  2. Know the work to be done. Spend time up front identifying and defining the project's deliverables. For near-term work, be sure the team knows the task and the criteria for considering it “done.”
  3. Prioritize the work. Focus on the work to complete your next milestone. Take a step back and ask if you’re missing any longer-lead-time items that need to be started now. For example, packaging design is a long-lead-time activity that can disrupt progress unless the team finds a way to start it in parallel with other development activities.
  4. Timebox and swarm problems. Try timeboxing each person’s work: give them a set amount of time to move a single task as far as possible toward completion. With a self-imposed time limit, timeboxing helps you put into practice Mark Twain’s great advice, “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” For critical problems, you’ll want your team to swarm the problem. Concentrated effort by more than one person at a time on your most important challenges brings two benefits: multiple perspectives and more effective execution.

Here’s an example of a technical team whose work was transformed by agile work. A commercial-stage medical device startup was on a tight timeline to move its manufacturing process from in-house to a contract manufacturer. Key company milestones depended on delivering on time. The problem? The sheer volume of tasks was overwhelming the team’s ability to respond to minor issues as they arose. How could a great development team get stuck in this situation? Think of a highway at rush hour, with traffic flowing but congested. Someone taps their brakes, and traffic slows to a crawl before you know it. The scope and complex interdependencies of the project meant that any necessary adjustment to the plan — think a validation test result that triggered follow-up work — was like brake lights on the highway. The project slowed to a crawl, even though both teams were at the top of their game. Their process was failing them.

The solution? The team replaced the traditional communication and planning process that was causing their bottleneck. They killed the Gantt chart and replaced it with an agile approach. With no more updating the dependencies and timing of tasks for the small changes that inevitably occurred, the team had more capacity and ability to focus on delivering the work. Kanban charts prioritized and made visible immediate tasks and were a focal point at the daily huddle. The new agile approach's results were clear: the responsiveness and increased capacity and focus accelerated the manufacturing transfer.

3. Making Space To Reflect Allows For Improvement And Growth

The agile methodology prioritizes the habit of reflection – regularly identifying ways the team can deliver better. At the end of every sprint, teams should inspect their work and identify at least one way to improve. When you invest just 10 percent of your energy into making these incremental improvements, you create a flywheel effect over time.

Your goal as a team is to identify one experiment to try in the next sprint to improve either the product you’re developing or your capability as a team – and to commit to trying that experiment.

Here’s a tip for more effective team reflection: Adopt the “we, not you” rule. Instead of pointing a finger at one person who needs to change (“You should do X next time”), try framing your improvement with “We” and “I”: “We should do X next time, and I will do Y to support that.”

Self-awareness is a skill that takes a lot of practice, and we build it through regular reflection. I once had a mentor who spent 5 minutes with me at the end of every team meeting. He’d ask: “How did it go? Did you accomplish your objective? What could you do differently next time?”

Through the practice of regular reflection, I started to identify micro-adjustments I could make to be more effective. When you get really good at that constant reflection, you achieve a flow state where time slows down and you can see your behavior while it’s happening. The most innovative teams are the most self-aware teams.

Agile teamwork is the methodology our teams need to keep pace with constant change, stay ahead of the curve, and remain competitive in a complex industry. We can move our teams forward by communicating daily, killing deadlines, and nurturing regular reflection.

About The Author:

Chris Danek is the CEO of Bessel LLC. He is a serial entrepreneur and veteran of the life sciences industry. At Bessel, he works with entrepreneurs, startups, and established company teams to develop breakthrough medical device technologies. In prior roles, he was co-founder and CEO of AtheroMed (now Philips AtheroMed) and VP of R&D at Asthmatx (acquired by Boston Scientific). He is a visiting professor at the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation at the University of Texas at El Paso, an advisor to the Santa Clara University Healthcare Innovation and Design Lab, and an inventor of more than 85 U.S. patents.