Innovation is Caring and Thoughtful

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March 20, 2019
Thoughts by
Andrew DiMeo
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Thoughtful and caring innovation

The word “innovation” is getting used a lot these days. So much so that its meaning has become generic and its definition lost. I wish to find it. What follows is an exploration of the word “innovation” in search of a useful definition, for clarity, and for enlightenment. My favorite definition to date comes from Scott Burleson, friend and innovation expert at The AIM Institute. Scott describes innovation as, “an improvement in value” and then further defines “value” as “benefits over cost.”

“(Innovation) = (Value Increase) = (Benefits) / (Costs)”

To explore this topic further, I’m going to dive deep into the definitions of each of these words proposed by Scott.

What Are “Benefits?”

The root of the word “benefit comes from the Latin “bene facere” which translates to “do good (to).”

The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig explores the concept of “good” in great detail by examining the word “quality.” In this fantastic journey of quality, Pirsig makes a case that it is intrinsic, existing in both the romantic and classical thought processes. Indeed, the book explores quality as The Buddha, as Tao, and as what is good.

Quality as what is good feels like common sense to a professor who has had to assign grades by (quality of work) or (what is good work).  The notion proposed by Pirsig that quality/good exists in both romantic and classical thought processes is key to the topic of assigning grades to students in the arts as well as the sciences. This can further be extended to commercial innovation in the sense of both psychology and economics; often considered two unique domains. Tying together emotional (brand assets) and rational (product design) purchase decisions can be explored further in its own right.

“(Benefits) = (Quality) = (What Is Good)”

What Is “Good?”

What is good work in an engineering class versus what is good work in a poetry class may seem subjective. What is a good flavor to one person might not be a good flavor to another person. The notion that “good” is subjective is a complicated road to go down, because it suggests that good is whatever you like it to be. If that were the case, how then can grades be assigned by any other means than a subjective measure of good?

What if we define “good” another way?

I have a particular interest in Health Innovation, and therefore will bias in that direction. So, I’m going to propose a definition of “good” as “conditions favorable for health.”

“(What Is Good) = (Conditions Favorable for Health)”

What Are Conditions Favorable for Health?

For this, I’ll draw from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and consider our most basic needs such as air, water, food, and shelter. It is a natural instinct to seek conditions favorable for health for all living things. From bacteria, which “like” conditions such as warmth and moisture, to a stray cat that might like to be under a parked car with a warm engine and safe from the falling rain. These would be “good” conditions for bacteria or a cat (not that I’m comparing the two).

So far I’m building a hypothesis that:

“(Benefits) = (What Is Good) = (Conditions Favorable for Health)”

Looking back to Scott’s original definition of innovation as benefits over costs, then a new proposed definition might look like this:

“(Innovation) = (Value Increase) = (Conditions Favorable for Health) / (Costs)”

Indeed, this is the thought process at the root of our nation’s focus on value-based care as defined by CMS. This topic is explored in detail by organizations such as Deloitte and Optum. If this formula is correct, then it is not enough just to have conditions favorable for health, but rather, to promote such conditions. After all, if innovation is indeed a process; a process is active, not static.

“Innovation is a process of improving health and reducing costs.”

Industrial Design Medical Device Innovation Surgery Caring Thoughtful

What Is a Process of Improving Health?

It’s to be caring.

Historically, caring may have been thought of as providing medical attention to the sick. Today, caring is more than caring for the sick, it’s more than helping someone get better, it’s more than sustaining your current health. As technology and standards of care have advanced, so have our mindsets in addressing health. Caring is about improving your health and the health of your surrounding communities. But this is just the top half of the equation. What about the bottom half?

What Is “Cost”?

To explore “cost,” I came to the idiom: at all costs.

What are all these costs?

  • Money spent and/or the effort to earn that money?
  • Cost of goods sold?
  • Lives lost in war? The effort to win the war?
  • Resources to achieve a goal? The effort to reach that goal?

The highlight is on “effort”

Indeed, looking at the historical roots of the phrase, “at all costs,” it can be translated to “regardless of effort.” It is logical that cost is relative to effort which itself can be defined as energy spent on work. We work to make money, to buy a product. Logical. But I’m hung up on this notion that if our goal is to reduce cost, it is also suggesting we reduce effort. This is not so logical.

To get past this, I needed to draw lessons learned from coaching baseball.

“Control what you can control: attitude and effort.”

The idea of giving less effort just didn’t sit right with me when first meditating on this part of innovation. But if attitude and effort are two things we can control…, what is control anyway? If we give maximum effort all the time, is that really controlling effort? Is the foot on the gas pedal all the way down controlling the car? Or is that car out of control? Interesting, right?

What Is the Control of Attitude and Effort?

Is this to mean we have choice of attitude and effort? What are we asking the baseball player to do here? Choose a “good” attitude. Choose what about effort? Full effort? It feels right to consider that the choice in attitude is to choose a “good” or a “bad” attitude. Choosing a good attitude is one that promotes conditions for health. This is making sense, but now I’m back on benefits, quality, what is good, and health.

So what effort are we choosing?  Is there good effort and bad effort?

In the book, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement;  author Eliyahu M. Goldratt takes us to the floor of a manufacturing plant and explores many concepts, including a notion that “always working” is not the most efficient way to run a business. The concept is resisted by the characters in the book, rightfully so, as it is not intuitive. The Goal masterfully uses the scientific method and Socratic thinking to teach lean manufacturing. Among the many lessons learned is that always working is not a solution to improve plant efficiency.

If we have a choice in effort, is the effort we put forth an effort that is carefully considered? Scientifically? Socratically? Thoughtfully? This is the old debate of “working hard” versus “working smart.” Cost. Effort. Work. The relationships of these make sense. However, even after reading The Goal, the notion of minimizing effort is still not sitting right.

I need to zoom back out to the big picture: Innovation

There’s an example used in class for years about a swimmer at the beach. The undertow is bad and they’ve drifted far off shore and suddenly realize they need to get back. This can be a scary situation. As the lesson goes, I ask the students, “what is smarter, putting your head down and swimming towards shore as vigorously as possible, only coming up for air when you need it?  OR, slowing down, thinking, and looking at the waves?”

Swim in with the waves. Rest between waves. Swim smart.

Work hard with the waves. Take breaks. Observe. Be thoughtful about your return to shore, your return to conditions favorable for health. It’s not to minimize effort but to maximize effort. Using all of your effort can be wasteful, if some of your effort is used without the waves. Work Hard AND Work Smart (with the waves).

So, what is innovation?

Innovation is increasing benefits over reducing cost. This is value based care.

Innovation is improving conditions favorable for health and maximizing effort. It is working towards (What is Good) through (Hard AND Smart Work).

Innovation is to be caring and thoughtful.

Andrew DiMeo
Innovation & Design Coach

Dr. Andrew DiMeo is a 20 year seasoned expert in the Biomedical Engineering industry. He is founder and former executive director of the NC Medical Device Organization, which became an NC Biotech Center of Innovation. He also co-founded and became VP of Business Development for the design and manufacturing company EG-Gilero.


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