Research and development is tightly coupled with product management and innovation. To learn how an R&D person thinks about innovation, I talked with Dana A. Oliver, who has 30 impressive years of experience in R&D groups. He now focuses on writing and coaching, after leaving Medtronic, the medical device company, where he was the Senior Director of R&D.
He has also written two books. His first is Mantra Leadership and his second and most recent is Mantra Design. In Mantra Design he shares 14 principles, or mantras, for innovation and developing premium priced, patent protected, and market share leading products.
We discuss a few of his mantras and then explore the future of R&D. The mantras discussed include:
- Innovate, Buy or Die
- Learn Your Customer’s World!
- Innovation begins with the Eye
- It Takes a Long Time to Get to Simple
Practices and Ideas for Product Managers and Innovators
Summary of questions discussed:
- What led you to creating the 14 mantras for innovation? I started early in my career as a leader using mantras on a regular basis. The reason I use them is that they allow for effective leadership communication. A mantra is short, concise, and consistent. Part of being a leader is your messaging. So over time the mantras just turned into something that was a great tool that helped me lead others.
- What is your first mantra? I call it Innovate, Buy or Die. This is also the subtitle of my book, Mantra Design. When I look at businesses, it’s very common that when a business starts and then becomes successful, it’s predicated on products they design. They are very customer-focused, they establish their brands, but then something odd occurs. As they grow and get bigger, the innovative people begin to move out and more finance people come in. The customer focus is replaced with a portfolio focus. Instead, businesses should be doing what I call “dance with the girl you came with.” Look at Intel, Victoria’s Secret, Starbuck’s, or Michelin — these are companies that have a core technology, a core name, a core brand, and they remain true to these elements. If you remain true to the girl you dance with and you invest back into organic development, you will keep your customers and you’ll be the best in your space. That’s the essence of the “Innovate, Buy, or Die.” The single best thing you can do as a business owner and as an innovator, is understand your customer and/or your technology and just continue to invest in that space.
- Tell us about your “Learn Your Customer’s World” mantra. Business begins and ends with your customers. If you ever want to be a true innovator, you have to get close to your customers. I have two mantras about this, and the first one is “Learn Your Customer’s World”, and the second one is “Innovation Begins with the Eye.” What I mean by that is everyone talks about understanding your customer’s articulated needs. But, you have to understand their world so intimately that what you begin to see is not only the articulated needs, but the unarticulated needs as well. It’s the frustrations, it’s the pain points. That’s what I mean about “Innovation Begins with an Eye.” I suggest having a simulated environment in your research and development group where your customers can do their work. For me, I had a full operating suite I would bring doctors to. We’d put our new products in their hands and then we’d talk and we would also quietly observe. It was interesting. During a pre-interview, we’d ask some questions and they’d tell us how they might perform a particular procedure. Then when we got in the operating suite and watched, they’d do something different. When you begin to pick up on that nuance that they didn’t talk about, it’s likely that you can get intellectual property around that. That’s how you develop your intellectual property and develop products and brands that get differentiated and that you can establish premium pricing around.
- What is “It Takes a Long Tim to Get to Simple” about? An example I like to use is to think about a living room set in a house someone recently purchased. They buy a house and maybe they buy all the furniture for the living room. But guess what happens – they move the furniture around the living room several times. The reason they do this is that they’re trying to find the right balance between viewing the TV, having conversations, fitting the most people, etc. When it’s all said and done, if you look at the living room you would think it was great, not knowing the furniture was moved ten times. Those iterations are necessary to get the furniture right, and that is getting to simple. Developing a product is no different. The best products are seamless, but seamless comes after countless iterations. So the caution I try to use with people is to not be in such a hurry to get to market that you lose out if you just take a little longer to make products seamless and simple. The reality is if your product is not easy and seamless to use, your customers will abandon you quickly.
“Successful people aren’t afraid to fail. They’re afraid of not trying.” -Dana A. Oliver
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