In the media

Inside lessons from the UK's Ventilator Challenge

Frazer Bennett

By Frazer Bennett

Management Today

16 October 2020


This article was first published in Management Today

As I was toasting the start of a new decade this year, I made a new year’s resolution to do more to make the world a better place. At the time, I imagined that would involve trying to use less plastic or pushing my team to do more work in sustainability. I didn’t think it would involve redirecting RAF aircraft to collect vital components for life-saving ventilators.

Yet, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, that’s what I had to do to ensure the UK Ventilator Challenge could innovate fast enough to save lives. In just 12 weeks, this incredible collaboration between public and private organisations manufactured more than 13,000 new ventilators. We designed and developed three new devices, and got them approved by the medical regulator, and scaled the production of an existing device from a 150 a year to 400 a day.

This wasn’t a project any of the thousands of participants could ever have prepared for. But it is one we can all learn from. As the pace of change in the world accelerates, leaders can apply three lessons to quicken their innovation processes.

1. Unite around a shared mission

A mission simplifies choices. It energises people. And it defines your business model. It does this by uniting your teams around a single question, as they seek to make decisions every day: “Does this help us deliver our mission?”

For the Ventilator Challenge, our mission was to “substantially increase UK ventilator capacity so no patient who needed one went without one”. This mission kept teams motivated and resilient. And it informed the structure of the programme, creating an environment where almost 8,000 people from more than a hundred organisations could collaborate effectively.

The mission purposefully focused on the patient outcome rather than a hard goal based on numbers. That’s because your mission needs to be a high-level desire that inspires people, rather than a concrete goal that can’t flex when external forces demand that it does. So, to establish a mission for your innovation project, begin by focussing on the benefit you want to give your end user.

2. Create high performing teams by bringing together diverse expertise

With a clear mission in place, it becomes possible to focus on goal harmony rather than team harmony. You can pull together people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives to create and manage dissonance, with people challenging each other to find the best way to work towards the mission.

During the Ventilator Challenge, that meant bringing together designers, manufacturers, regulators and clinicians to get end-to-end perspectives on early decisions. The Challenge had to deliver two and a half years’ work in six weeks, so there wasn’t time for traditional linear processes. Creating such diverse teams meant we could identify potential issues with regulatory approval or real-world use right at the start of the design process, eliminating time-consuming remedial work and last-minute compromises.

So, liberate people from functional silos and build teams that include all the diverse skills you need to deliver elements of your mission. And bring your end user into the process as early as possible so you can be certain you’re really meeting their needs.

3. Empower people to act

Rigid hierarchy obstructs innovation. When senior leaders feel obliged to make decisions, the business can slow down or, worse, go in the wrong direction. That’s because those at the top typically don’t have a complete picture of what’s happening on the front line of innovation. And they usually aren’t directly and immediately impacted by the decisions.

When manufacturing the ventilators, for example, it was the engineers building them that knew what would make them more efficient in completing the tasks in front of them. By empowering them to make minor changes to how they put the devices together, they could accelerate manufacturing.

Empowering people in this way requires a culture of trust. Trust your people to have a sense of risk and escalate serious decisions. And trust that, while there might be the occasional wrong decision, the cost of a misstep is less than the cost of inaction.

We increasingly need to innovate like lives depend on it

Back on New Year’s Day 2020, I didn’t anticipate a novel coronavirus that had just closed a Chinese fish market would change our entire world. While COVID-19 is the starkest reminder of how quickly things can change, it’s by no means the only one. The pace of change, across business and society, is accelerating. For organisations to survive and thrive, they must learn to innovate like lives depend on it.

Learn more about how the PA team delivered one of the largest mobilisations of innovation, science and engineering since the Second World War.

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