In the media

The UK Ventilator Challenge: beginning at the end

Simon Collier

By Simon Collier

E&T Magazine

25 November 2020


This article first appeared in E&T Magazine

Major innovation programmes are now the norm, particularly as organisations pivot in response to the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve seen Leon, the healthy fast-food restaurant, rapidly reinvent its entire business model, switching from being a quick lunch stop to running mini supermarkets as panic buyers stripped shelves. Distilleries across the UK quickly turned down production of gin and vodka to respond to demand for hand sanitiser.

Such examples show the real power of ingenuity – when you give people the opportunity to take risks and do something differently, they can achieve remarkable things. And while all the innovative programmes that emerged from the pandemic have been relatively short lived, they can teach us a lot about how to effectively adapt for our new reality.

In the early stages of the pandemic, the UK Ventilator Challenge saw a consortium of more than 150 industrial, technology and engineering businesses from across the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors come together to ensure everyone who needed a ventilator, got one.

The initiative showed how to effectively manage the often challenging shift from a rapid innovation programme to business as usual. As ventilators reached hospitals and the crisis-response phase ended, crucial work remained. Settling invoices or managing surplus components, for example, might seem mundane activities, but they’re integral to long-term success.

Traditionally, this switch can leave loose ends, dishearten teams, and create awkward conversations with delivery partners. But the Ventilator Challenge showed that by thinking carefully about people, commercial agreements and documentation from the start of an innovation programme, you can maximise its benefits through the wind down.

Complex innovation programmes have multiple teams working towards the same goal and different suppliers and delivery partners involved at various times. During the Ventilator Challenge more than 5,000 people focused on saving the lives of Covid-19 patients. This complexity makes the human side of innovation crucial – the soft skills that manage relationships and ensure diverse teams can work effectively together.

So, set up your innovation programme with a culture of collaboration from the off. This requires uniting people around a shared mission – in our case, saving lives by ensuring that no patient who needed a ventilator went without one, as well as nurturing close relationships at crucial intersections, such as the contact point between you and a supplier.

For the Ventilator Challenge, people were working long hours together for several weeks without a break. When we reached a steady state and were sending ventilators out to hospitals, we needed to settle invoices and look ahead to the long-term needs of the ventilators, such as warranties and future upgrades. Having individual relationship managers working with each of the more than 100 organisations involved helped everyone set aside individual emotions. At the same time, the shared mission was a consistent guiding light that shaped what could have been awkward conversations.

When working on large innovation programmes with external partners and suppliers, it’s important to tailor commercial agreements. Sticking rigidly to complex onboarding requirements and costly commercial arrangements will often put off ingenious start-ups from even getting involved. And those that do become a partner can struggle through the labour-intensive and complicated wind down without the right support written into contracts.

From the start of the Ventilator Challenge, we helped the Cabinet Office tailor more than 150 commercial contracts to each of the companies involved. To keep things moving at pace, work began in earnest based on letters of intent, while we finalised signed-off contracts. To provide flexibility, many of the agreements didn’t include concrete deliverables, such as a fixed number of ventilators to manufacture, to ensure the partnerships could handle the rapidly evolving situation.

This agile approach to contracting meant we could tailor the package of support we gave to each organisation through the wind down. For example, we had small suppliers that weren’t particularly cash-rich working with large multinationals, so we needed the flexibility in the commercial arrangement to give them both the right support through the wind down.

Taking such a tailored approach and considering the wind down from the start also makes it possible to recover value at the end of a programme or project. As we started the Ventilator Challenge, for example, we were working with a shortlist of 15 ventilator designs. To ensure we would be able to deliver them quickly, we sourced 40 million parts from 21 countries for them all. In the end, we moved forward with four designs and the commercial agreements we had with suppliers meant we could recover value from the spare parts by returning or reselling them.

When you’re being ambitious with innovation, robust documentation must underpin everything. This is about minuting meetings, recording conversations and detailing decisions so, when it comes to the wind down, you have a reliable source of truth in the event of any issues and know exactly how to disentangle the complex systems you’ve put in place.

To be effective, you need to make comprehensive documentation a part of the culture. Set the expectation with teams early, reiterate the need to document decisions often, and lead by example. In our case, we deliberately changed the mission to achieving ‘world-class close down’ – a revised unifying purpose that focused the team on the highest-quality programme wind down.

And when you’re innovating at pace, traditional governance structures can cause delays. That’s why, for the Ventilator Challenge, we created an agile and flexible Technical Design Authority (TDA) combining clinical, regulatory and technical expertise. The TDA met frequently to make important decisions regarding the selection and development of ventilators. To do this, they were supported and enabled to collate and process vast levels of detail from the various workstreams, which, in turn, with a swift feedback loop, allowed individual teams to act quickly; they just needed to document what they were doing to ensure the TDA could align everyone.

This ensured we were fanatical about accurately documenting everything, with daily reporting from each workstream on the estimated volume of ventilators they would be producing and qualitative reporting on top of that from relationship managers. So, when there have been any questions around decisions during the wind down, we’ve been able to reference the meeting, conversation and decision.

Wind down is an opportunity to maximise the value of innovation programmes. Major innovation programmes are essential to long-term success. And while many can deliver an innovative product of service, they often leave value on the table as they wind down the projects. By setting up ambitious programmes with wind down in mind, you ensure you can maximise value.

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