In the media

And breathe… Innovation lessons from an ‘impossible’ challenge

By Kate Magee

Management Today

09 November 2023

Experimental mindsets, parallelism and magpies – PA Consulting’s innovation chief takes MT inside the race to build 30,000 ventilators in just 8 weeks as the pandemic began.

13 March 2020. Frightening pictures were circulating of hospitals in Northern Italy in crisis, besieged by seriously ill patients struggling with a new disease called Covid-19. There weren’t enough beds, wards or life-saving equipment to help. The world was waking up to the reality that a global pandemic had begun.

Scientific modelling said the NHS would run out of life-saving equipment within weeks. It was in that context that a phone call from the Cabinet Office came through to PA Consulting, a professional services firm with government contracts. The ask? Build 30,000 mechanical ventilators in eight weeks.

It was an impossible request, thought Frazer Bennett, the global chief innovation officer at PA Consulting and a senior member of the consultancy’s management team. For if you know anything about medical devices, you’ll know it might typically take two to three years to get such a product into production – from the design process and manufacturing through to passing stringent safety tests and regulatory hurdles. But saying no wasn’t an option – to use that hoary cliche, it really was a matter of life and death.

That weekend, PA Consulting assembled a national team of inter-disciplinary experts. On Monday, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson released a call to arms to the nation for help. So began, what the consultancy dubs, “one of the largest mobilisations of innovation, science and engineering since WW2”.

Ultimately the project delivered 13,500 working ventilators, so no patient that needed one went without (as knowledge of the disease progressed, treatment plans changed and the targets were reduced). Not only that, but the new ventilators were cheaper than the existing devices on sale.

It’s a story of beating the odds, the power of collaboration between different industries and organisations, and, importantly, it offers lessons for how to be more productive. Bennett, who was at the project helm, shares his experience in the latest Leadership Lessons podcast. Below are some highlights from the conversation.

Penlon ventilator

Early days and parallelism

Johnson’s call to arms resulted in more than 2,500 initial offers of help (these later swelled to 5,000), which were all triaged within the first five days. More than 200 ventilator designs or prototypes were submitted. Stakeholders from across tech, design, manufacturing, regulation and clinicians were assembled alongside PA Consulting and the ministerial team.

A mixed-disciplinary core team of around 15 met every day at 7.30pm to drive the project’s pace and ensure the right decisions were being made. This was particularly important in a government context, where decisions are not usually taken quickly. “Creating fast decision loops was super important,” says Bennett.

The team had to shun the traditional linear process of taking a product to market. Eleven distinct projects were run in parallel, with experts from large companies like Rolls-Royce, Ford, Airbus, Meggitt and GKN on board. “This is a horse race where you must have a horse finish. You’re not going to put just one horse in the race,” he says.

At the same time, the team was scaling up the manufacturing process before it even had a product to manufacture. It sourced more than 40 million components for the ventilators from around the world, a challenge given the world was in lockdown and countries were competing for resources.

“There was a lot of parallelism, both in terms of having 11 programmes and also running different parts of the process in parallel,” he says. This was crucial to help the ventilator adapt to the evolving knowledge of the disease.

The experimental mindset

Critical to the success of the project was an experiment mindset, which allowed teams to depersonalise failure and quickly redirect resources to more promising outcomes. This mindset “enabled us to turn things off and this is super, super important in the world of innovation”, Bennett says.

“If you think of the 11 projects as horses in a race, as some of those horses got closer to the finishing line, we were able to retire those who were further back in the field and divert our energies toward those that were more likely to succeed.”

Projects that were shut were not considered failures. “Experiments don’t fail if you design them correctly because you get an outcome from the experiment, you learn something,” he says.

Applying this mindset in other contexts can allow leaders to avoid zombie projects. “There’s an infection that many companies suffer from, where they are doing innovation projects for such a long time that they can’t remember why they are doing them. We’re able to cut through that in our own work with this approach,” Bennett says.

An experimental mindset also fosters psychological safety, which is critical to success in creativity and innovation. Bennett believes it is the job of a leader to create the right environment and allow people to challenge the presumed thinking: “You don't make a small child feel safe crossing the road on their own by just telling them it's safe… You make them feel safe by showing them how to do it. As leaders in innovation, we ourselves have to take the kind of measured risks that you should be taking in innovation.”

Fear and magpies

To dampen unhelpful competitiveness between the multiple project groups, Bennett kept everyone focused on the audacious goal – in this case, its urgency and seriousness helped. “There was one prize and when we crossed the finishing line, we all got a medal,” he says. The nature of the goal also meant the enormity of the tasks didn’t overwhelm the group: “I don't think that fear ever entered our collective minds.”

There was also “huge amounts of overcommunication”, he says, particularly between teams internally, who were talking to each other every day using virtual software. Clinicians would join Zoom calls in their scrubs, to aid the evolving understanding of the disease.

The single-minded focus, parallelism and collaborative spirit paid off. Within two weeks of the “call to arms”, the first ventilator design was approved and by four weeks, the new ventilators were rolling off the production lines.

Medical devices manufacturer Penlon, which made the ventilators, would typically have manufactured 40 similar products in a month. In its last single day of production, it manufactured 400 – a sizable uplift in a short period of time. This was achieved, Bennett says, by borrowing from “the brilliance of UK car manufacturing”, which he praises for being “fabulous” at automation, process and ensuring resilience and quality of manufacturing.

Bennett urges companies to borrow ideas from other environments. “When faced with a big challenge, it’s very often the case that somebody else has already solved that problem – maybe not in your market with your particular product, but you can identify parallels. Ask yourself, who has solved a problem like mine? How can I magpie? How can I steal ideas and translate them into my environment?”

He adds: “There is no such thing as ‘the light bulb moment’. Innovation is a hard graft. Innovation is saying no to a thousand things because you are identifying the one thing you should say yes to."

“My heart sinks when I see primary-coloured beanbags”

In his day job, Bennett is currently working on around 150 projects with clients. For example, his team is working on replacing single-use plastic. It is trying to rapidly scale manufacturing for a technology called PulPac, a dry molded fiber technology that uses ground-up paper to replace “anything you might see in a supermarket today that is made of plastic”.

PA Consulting has genuine innovation bragging rights. The business, which is currently celebrating its 80th anniversary, has seven labs in the US and UK, its largest in Cambridge.

The chances are that you've benefited from a product it had a hand in creating: stripey toothpaste; tonometers – the machine that puffs air into your eyes at opticians to detect eye pressure; the UK's first telephone bank First Direct; the first disposable home pregnancy test; automated number plate recognition; biometric passports; the digital countdown for London's buses; and Pret's coffee subscriptions.

“This is not an advisory business where the deliverable is a piece of advice and we'll run away just in time for you to discover it might not have been good advice. We'll actually roll our sleeves up and help bring that new product or service dragging and kicking into the world,” he says.

In his role, he sees several misconceptions among businesses about what innovation means: “When I go into a client organisation and see they’ve got a room with ‘innovation’ on the door, and, worse than that, there are primary coloured beanbags, my heart sinks. Innovation is a mindset, an approach, a way of thinking about things. It’s a playful willingness to experiment.”

To ensure a steady flow of ideas, Bennett encourages his team to stretch their thinking by being more inquisitive. He praises 10x thinking, where people have to set ambitious, transformational goals to change something by a factor of 10.

“Ask, what if we needed to manufacture this product for a tenth of the price, or a tenth of the timeframe, or it needed to be 10 times lighter? By forcing people to think in the extremes, you force people to come up with a different way of approaching a problem and that can really nurture an innovative mindset,” he says.

Future threats

He has identified two major challenges for businesses in the future. The first is the ability to recognise competitors. “We don’t live in a world where every industry lives in its own swim lane. Think of the demise of the high street as an example where companies don't know where their competitor is coming from,” he says.

One of his clients from a top-tier consumer retail company, whose products are sold on every supermarket shelf, recently told him they consider Amazon to be their biggest competitor, because it owns the customer’s eyeballs. They told him: “We no longer own the eyeballs of the customer because they are not having an in-store experience.”

A second perennial, but increasingly complex, challenge is how companies can understand their customer motivations at a time when it is so easy to switch brand allegiance. “The rate at which new products and service experiences come to market, with different business models on different technologies, has never been seen at this rate before,” he says.

When asked to name his biggest leadership lesson, Bennett says it is to realise “the most effective leaders are the incomplete leaders. Others have a different perspective. More often than not, their perspective will be more valid than mine.”

Or, thinking back to 13 March 2020, he quips: “Don’t answer the phone.”

This article was first published in Management Today

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