David Dobson

Diversity, Problem Solving Methodologies & Innovation in Medical Device Design

                                                                                                                                                                                          Diversity is a very popular topic these days.  Its value is promoted and debated in all kinds of organizations all around the globe.  In all the talk, one thing’s for certain, the acceptance of organizational diversity brings about change on a number of fronts but diversity and change for their own sake can be unproductive, and are often meaningless.  Diversity can only have a positive effect if it’s properly and productively channeled.  This blog is not about the political aspects of diversity in the workplace. My interest lies in how it affects different ways of thinking and how that affects the development process and impacts the output of product development in medical device design.

Diversity in teams

Working for a number of product development consultancies has exposed me to a wide variety of people and the different ways they solve problems.  People and their different backgrounds, with the different ways they gain insight and how they process that information, are fascinating.  When you put together a team with various histories you get friction.  The way they see the world, their life experiences, and in this case, how they envision the ecosystem of products and corresponding technologies that make up a specific market, is not always complementary.  Everyone doesn’t always line up nicely and march in the same direction toward the same output.  I’ve come to realize that this can be a good thing.  Friction causes us to rethink our closely held assumptions.  We may not conclude that we were wrong and the other person was right but if we’re open to debate without getting offended then we might just learn something in the process.  We might stumble upon a better way to solve a difficult problem and connect with a combination of ideas that deeply resonates with an existing or new market

Product categories need cross pollination

Innovation frequently happens at the intersection of very different product categories and technologies.  I saw this when I worked for a consumer electronics company a few years ago.  It was very difficult for our firm to innovate when we isolated one category from the next.  When we were willing to mix categories and allow teams to cross pollinate ideas from one group to the other – to look at products like a paint palette – mixing colors that were not normally thought to be complimentary, then we discovered new opportunities for meaningful innovation.

Who should rule – The Left or the Right?

Too often product development teams are lead (both at the executive and project management level) by those with strong analytical skills (left brainers).  Left brainers often migrate to the top of organizations because of their ability to organize information, and people, into nice, neat, little logical baskets.  This is not a bad thing and when taken in moderation has many benefits (including efficiency) but given too much control, it can stifle and even kill the seeds of creative thinking.  It inhibits innovation, because conceptual thinking by nature is messy and not necessarily linear.  It needs room to experiment and find its way.  This of course is problematic to the entrenched left side of the hemisphere.  How can anything so chaotic yield something worthwhile?

If the left brain manager is close minded, thinking he or she knows best, and has an ego, then the possibility of finding a new way forward is almost non-existent.  But if the manager recognizes and learns to value and encourage (in measure) the free and conceptual thinking of their right brain team mates, then they will have harnessed an extremely powerful resource.  In essence, a capability that will greatly increase their company’s ability to recognize untapped user needs and develop, market, sell and profit from well thought out products.

Should diversity be limited to the ID team?

Each day I come to work, I’m surrounded by lots of really smart people – designers, engineers, physicists and others with interesting backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.  As I watch all of these people work, i’m always amazed at how those trained in something as analytical as physics can work well and contribute to a team engaged in something as conceptual as ethnography and usability research – how they can comprehend and conceptualize new product ideas alongside Industrial Designers.  Given the right management, environment and culture, I’ve seen how innovative, outside-the-box ideas, can come from some of the most unlikely of sources.  Yes, a physicist can make a very real contribution when paired with an ID.

Isn’t this all a no-brainerand what are the impediments to moving forward?

It seems like embracing diversity would be a natural way to encourage innovation.  On the surface it seems so easy.  All you have to do is bring in lots of very talented people from a wide variety of backgrounds, give them great tools to work with and let them create wonderful new things.  Why wouldn’t every company and product development organization work this way?

The reason many/most companies don’t embrace diversity is because it’s very hard to pull off.   Chaos when institutionalized is hard to corral.   Most managers are not trained to deal with disorder, and even more so, recognize the threads of meaningful innovation that run through the large hair ball that’s often created in free thinking environments.   One thing’s for sure, the greater portion of the investment community – those who have a singular focus on short term results – have no understanding of or patience for organizations and companies that truly encourage diverse ways of thinking.

The really hard part

Now I’m going to contradict myself and temper some of the things I’ve just said in the above blog.  I do believe that diversity is good for many organizations.  It’s the catalyst that causes a reaction and brings forth something new but there are some types of organizations that benefit from a more standardized organizational structure and problem solving methodology.  Homogenous teams are better suited for organizations that have highly repetitive tasks (manufacturing, QA, RA) and those who produce commodities.   Diverse teams are better suited to highly competitive, fast moving markets and product categories (medical device development, emerging technologies etc.).  It takes an experienced leadership team to know what type of structure works best in their organization and how to implement, integrate, manage and profit from a diverse work force.

Respect the differences and don’t try to force everyone to sing melody

The battle to make everyone work in the same manner will always go on.  Everyone believes the way they think is the best way to think.  We all want to get everyone on board and singing the same melody. We do this because it makes things easier, but not always better.  The best development groups I’ve seen are made up of very different people who have learned to harmonize their differences – sing different parts – in a way that complements one another.  It all sounds good….but how do you get people to work in this way?  I think the answer lies in a higher level, adaptable product development process that allows for very different ways of approaching and solving problems – a process that allows flexibility but also creates accountability for a tangible output.

Structure has its place

There has to be an overriding structure that makes sense and productive use of the chaos.  A structure that allows free thinking to flourish for a time and then objectively makes the necessary trade-offs that lead the product development exercise to a productive conclusion; a process that informs the team when to ‘cut it off and go to market’.  From what I’ve seen, a loosely defined product development process that takes into consideration different perspectives, down selects and distills the best ideas, then harnesses and focuses all this energy towards a tangible product goal/output is the best way to go.

I’m sure there are many different processes that have been implemented to achieve this purpose.  I would be interested in hearing back from some of you about what you’ve done in your company to encourage and channel the hidden benefits of a diverse work force.   Post a response on the blog and/or send me back a note with your ideas….as crazy as some of them may be.  : )

Image: rgbstock.com


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