Good ideas don’t just happen. They’re not sitting around waiting for you to come along and pluck them from obscurity. In reality, the process of bringing an idea to life takes serious dedication and hard work.
At the medical technology company Stryker, for example, every product undergoes a period of research and development, followed by a concept phase where the engineering team sees if they can actually develop the product. Then comes proof of concept, where they test whether the idea is a viable product. Lastly, there’s engineering, where they’re not only building the product, but fabricating the tools needed to develop it, a process that can take over a year.
So what sparks an idea for a groundbreaking product or invention? And once you’ve had the idea, how do you maintain the grit and commitment to take it through to finished product?
To find out, we spoke with Stryker Chief Engineer, Anish Paul, and Senior Engineering Manager, Kristi Brunner, about what it takes to think up a winning idea and bring a product to market.
Know Your Customer
There are a number of catalysts for why a product gets created. Sometimes there’s an obvious need in the market; other times it’s an idea born out of research and development.
“We have a lot of ideas, but we like to focus on the customer,” says Brunner. “We have a process we call customer-centered design (CCD), and that’s what we do to frame these design problems that we’re trying to solve.” With CCD, you’re building your products around a customer’s needs and their unique issues. In Stryker's case, that means developing solutions for healthcare workers.
“It’s very important for engineers to understand the market intimately,” Paul adds. In his 15 years with Stryker, Paul has gotten to know his target customer through clinical observations, job shadowing, and even visiting with those customers and finding out firsthand what they need in order to do their job better.
That knowledge helped Paul and his colleague Paul Radgens develop the M-Series stretcher.
“A lot of what we do is to care for the caregiver so they can care for the patient,” Paul explains. “The big thing with patient handling is you’ve got, you know, a 100-pound nurse that has to manage a 700-pound patient at times. If you think of that, that’s a pretty daunting task.”
Paul and Radgens realized that an electric powered stretcher would make it safer for healthcare providers to transport patients. And that’s the ultimate goal, Paul says—making the lives of these caregivers better.
Build Your A-Team
Building a product isn’t a solo endeavor. A 13-year Stryker veteran, Brunner manages a team of 16 engineers, but there are also 50 cross-functional team members working on any given project.
It can also take a great deal of time: While Brunner has worked on several products during her tenure with the company, it took seven years to develop Power-Load.
Launched in 2012, Power-Load is a cot fastener in an ambulance that better secures the stretcher to the back of the vehicle so that it can withstand a crash. And with Power-Load, emergency workers no longer have to lift the stretcher into the ambulance; the device does it for them, putting less stress on an EMT’s back and eliminating potential drops.
It was Brunner’s experience building innovative teams that helped guide this project through all its ups and downs. “It’s crucial to have a great team when you are working on a project that could take multiple years to complete,” she explains, adding, “You need to be able to leverage a team’s strengths. Technical expertise varies based on the challenge we are facing, but generally I look for someone that has passion for our customers, is a self-motivator, and is accountable.”
For his part, Paul has found that co-location of team members ultimately leads to organic collaboration and communication, and it also helps with building strong relationships and empathy among co-workers.
Last but definitely not least, Brunner says, “I look at the team dynamic as a whole. Team collaboration is a must, and each player has a part in this.”
When you’re developing new products, what seemed like a great idea one day might be obsolete or redundant the next, and your focus could change. And that means you’ll have to stare down disappointment at some point.
“Change is an everyday thing,” Paul says, “and you have to accept the fact that what you worked on yesterday is probably not as relevant today. It’s hard for a lot of people that have more of an operational mindset where it’s very structured, and they want task A to follow task B.”
If you’re leading a team like Paul, you have to instill a mindset that new product development is about charting a new course and that they need to approach it as if they were pioneers.
More importantly, you need to be OK with failing.
“You need to fail often and early to get it right,” Brunner says. “You have to be OK with getting it wrong and making mistakes because you're going to learn from those mistakes.”
When you’re inventing something, you don’t know what you don’t know, and the path forward isn’t very predictable in the beginning. Engineers are always going back to the drawing board and refining their work, constantly iterating the smallest details.
“You need to be resilient,” Brunner adds. “You need to be comfortable with the unknown and flexible to try something different but still focused on the best solution for the problem.”
See It Through
Bringing a product to life is never easy. “One of the hardest parts of our job is that you have an idea in your head, and in order to make the world believe that idea, you have to have tremendous perseverance and tenacity,” says Paul.
“You can scream and shout and flail your arms around, but no one sees the idea the way you see the idea,” he adds. You don’t just need to convince investors you believe in something—though that helps. You have to make the world believe it.
The reality is that it will take years of hard work to bring a product to market. But if you have the wherewithal and the passion to see an idea through, it can be an immensely rewarding experience for you and the consumers who enjoy your products.
“It’s so motivating to see and know that something you worked on has made someone’s life better,” Brunner says. “I feel so fortunate to be able to have a role in saving someone’s life as my day job.”