I have learned the most important lesson about innovation through my role as a medical device systems engineer: invention and adoption of new ideas is only possible through coherent and feedback driven collaborations. Indeed, building a new product is more than the product. It is about creative teams working together and navigating ambiguity in relentless pursuit of a shared goal. Within this context, systems engineering exists to enable creativity and nurture a collaborative culture by focusing on the bigger picture.
The P-80 Shooting Star is an example of creative collaborations, which are laser focused and trust based. Developed by Kelly Johnson, a systems engineer and head of advanced development projects at Lockheed, it was built in 143 days to compete with Germany’s Messerschmitt Me 262. At the time, the US was behind the jet engine technology. The British government provided Lockheed with the engine, the de Havilland Goblin, and Kelly Johnson stepped up to build a plane around the engine. A similar approach can be applied to medical device development.
→ Enabling collective creativity
Collective creativity emerges at the intersection of diverse ideas. In order to enable creativity, we need to build tightly bonded teams of diverse disciplines. However, there is always a risk: we can obstruct collective creativity by getting tunneled into our own functions and forgetting about how our work can impact others, or how it may create misalignments with our end goals. Systems engineers on the other hand are less focused on a particular discipline. They take a wholistic view which brings diverse teams together and enables collective creativity. How do they do that? They are first principle thinkers. They see the big picture, break down problems, ask questions and ensure interdisciplinary communications are happening.
A good example from medical device development at StarFish is cross-team collaboration during the concept definition phase. This is where typically a systems engineer leads the communications among human factors, electrical, mechanical and other creative teams. The goal is to brainstorm, bring all the ideas together and converge into a feasible concept that satisfies the needs. This is a top-down approach which is less focused on individual ideas or disciplines, but rather the system as a whole.
→ Leveraging collaborations
Building diverse teams and enabling creativity is only the first step. Next is to materialize creativity through collaborations which are agile and laser focused on a set of shared goals. This is where systems engineers closely work with clients, management, engineering teams and others to ensure that the short-term survival goals and long-term strategic goals are met. They see interdependencies, engage teams with specific questions in mind and listen to their ecosystem. The result of these collaborations is a series of strategies, roadmaps and decisions which shape up the fate of the product.
Let’s go back to the example of concept definition phase. Further down the road we need to architect, integrate, verify and validate that concept. This requires project managers, program managers, all the various engineering disciplines, and the client to work together. The challenge is to receive continuous feedback, stay focused on the goals and define clear expectations. This is certainly not the job of the engineering teams or the Product Development (PD) department alone. There are times when, for instance, expectation management becomes complicated and further progress requires Business Development to work with PD hand in hand. And this is what I call collaborations in action. I bet you can think of some good project examples!
→ Nurturing culture
The core value that systems engineering brings to an organization goes beyond technical leadership: it impacts the way we work together and make decisions. In order to realize the creative potential of a diverse collaboration, we need to build capacity for systems thinking, cultivate openness and build trust. Systems engineering nurtures these conditions by facilitating interdisciplinary interactions. That being said, systems engineering is more than engineering.
When I was a systems engineer, there was rarely a day without me bugging project managers or the engineering teams with questions, ideas and meetings. The intention was to ensure that the PD diverse teams were communicating with each other, that there was consensus decision making happening and that expectations were clear. In long term, these continuous communications promote trust and trust is a necessary condition to maintain a creative culture.
Arash Samimi is a former Systems Engineer and now a Program Design Engineer, Business Development at StarFish Medical. He previously worked with early-stage medical device companies, built new industry-university partnerships, co-founded a social-mission startup and led fundamental research projects for defense and manufacturing industries. Arash holds a PhD in applied physics from Queen’s University.