NAPLES, Florida – The importance of innovation and leadership for business success are standard and too often overly repetitive fare for conference attendees. Not so those delivered by Dean Kamen and Jimmy Collins, two speakers during the annual meeting of the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed; Washington).

Providing provocative highlights during their presentations at the sun-drenched Ritz-Carlton Naples Golf Resort, Kamen, founder of DEKA Research & Development (Manchester, New Hampshire) and developer of the innovative Segway personal transport scooter and the iBOT Mobility System, and Collins, Good to Great author, both brought fresh, “Freakonomic“-style perspectives to these topics and considerable entertainment besides.

Kamen said he had been invited to the gathering to discuss the “process“ of innovation but that he could only talk about creating the environment that “encourages“ innovation, which he defined not just as anything new but those new things that “have changed the way we live and work – they're rare.“ And he said that innovation is not a matter of engineering something new but understanding “what people value“ and matching these desires with available technologies.

“Inventions become innovation when they become usable“ and bring about “societal change,“ he said, supporting this by citing ancient inventions and observations of physical phenomena that took centuries to become . . . the analog calculator and the compass.

He then proceeded to offer what he termed the “rude realities“ of innovation (demonstrated with PowerPoint slides to show, he said, that “I can waste my time with PowerPoints“), such as:

  • The process of innovation isn't linear, but graphically circles, falls and rises erratically and usually requires both “a miracle“ and undeterred persistence.
  • You should “invent“ only as a last resort. “There's so much technology on the shelf. Look around,“ he said, “particularly to other industries,“ illustrating this with his own borrowings to develop one of the first automatic syringes and a stent for Cordis (Miami Lakes, Florida), the latter out of aerospace tech.
  • Innovation often means shoving aside previous solutions to problems since the previous solution “is often the problem.“
  • “It's not what we don't know that inhibits innovation – it's what we do know that just ain't so,“ supporting that with the idea that the telephone is supposed to come “through wires.“
  • Management of innovation is getting people to do “things right.“

Rather, he said it is getting people “to do the right things.“ And he said that managers too often are more focused on avoiding failure than achieving success.

Opposed to these rude realities, he offered three positives: the importance of developing new products for bringing “entire industries“ into being; the need to innovate all the time – “the Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stone,“ he said; and to avoid defining success “as a lack of failure – embrace change.“

Who can and should innovate? Both optimists and pessimists, he said, citing the airplane and the parachute as key examples. In other words, “everybody.“

Collins, whose specialty is the life, growth and decline of companies, discussed innovation in its more common meaning as development of just about anything new and said that innovation isn't what turns a good company into a great company.

Innovation is necessary, he said, because it “gets you into the game.“

But he proposed the view that too often companies can be distracted by constant innovation. The need to constantly innovate, he suggested, may be a symptom of a company's over-reaction and “chronic inconsistency – there is no consistent idea, no consistent insight, no consistent discipline.“

Rather, he emphasized the need for discipline in doing what you do best and to keep on doing it. It is not the result of the “one big 'Aha,' the big hit“ but rather “relentless discipline,“ the ability to “march 20 miles, the cumulative consistent discipline, even in a highly turbulent environment. It doesn't matter whether it's good weather or bad weather, you're going to march your 20 miles.“

Offering an example for his particular audience, he cited orthopedic titan Stryker (Kalamazoo, Michigan) as “a 20-mile-march company,“ and citing the “comparison company,“ U.S. Surgical (Norwalk, Connecticut), as not having this type of discipline.

Using philosopher Isaiah Berlin's “hedgehog“ and “fox“ analogies, Collins said that the great companies are like the hedgehog that persist at the things that they are really good at rather than the know-everything fox.

Hedgehog companies, he said, pursue their strengths and weather the storms of outward circumstances, no matter what they may be. And they focus on the “who“ rather than the “what.“

“I'm not going to figure out where to drive the bus until I figure out who should be on it,“ he said. The right people in the right seats are your most important asset.“

“Ultimate“ hedgehogs, he said, don't just create a product, they create companies. “It's not a computer, it's Intel. It's not a pocket calculator, it's HP.“

Probably disappointing the many upper-level executives who attend the annual AdvaMed gathering, Collins tended to downplay the overall importance, once the good or great company has been created, of “a single CEO.“

“The single CEO cannot make a great company, but he or she can bring a great company down,“ he said.

At the same time, he said that the leaders of great companies – which he has termed “level 5 leaders,“ tend to have a common characteristic, that of humility.

Executives, he said, tend to confuse power with leadership, and the result thus may be “undisciplined outcomes.“ And business CEOs, he noted, have a sort of power that doesn't have the “legislative“ restraints, say, that a college president has in dealing with faculty.

In business, he said, “A good king is great, but a bad king is incredibly bad.“

Asked how to identify your company's particular hedgehog strength, he emphasized the use of empiric evidence.

“Bullets, bullets, bullets,“ he said, and then paying close attention to those “that actually hit the target.“

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