Dana Oliver, senior director of research and development of ENT/NT Surgical Technologies at Medtronic, and author of Mantra Design: Innovate, Buy or Die.

Innovation 'secrets'

Medtronic exec authors book with problem-solving strategies

By Kevyn Burger
Thursday, March 3, 2016

In his 14 years with Medtronic, Dana Oliver helped grow the annual revenues in his division from $100 million to approximately $2 billion.

Now Oliver has compiled his approach to innovation and product development in a book, Mantra Design: Innovate, Buy or Die.

Oliver says that in his management practice, he has embraced the use of mantras, which he describes as “…an idiom, a phrase, a saying. You use it as a foundation. Communication is everything for an effective leader.”

Each of the 14 chapters of his new book expands on one of his concise mantras for innovation. 

One of them is “Innovation begins with an eye,” which Oliver calls the single most important piece of his innovation philosophy.

“Innovation takes place when you can closely observe what your customer is doing,” he maintains.

In his duties as senior director of research and development at Medtronic’s ENT/NT Surgical Technologies division, Oliver works with physicians in cadaver labs, the simulated surgical environments where he can watch them in action.

“That’s where we look for something challenging or difficult. What is the user — the doctor — doing that employs a lot of steps, maybe wasted energy or activity? You get to ground zero with your customer and you can start thinking like them. That’s when you see the unmet needs.”

Oliver, who has been granted over 20 patents in the medical device field, has found his physician customers to be willing, even eager collaborators. He prefers connecting with one doctor at a time, to diffuse group dynamics which can interfere with work in progress.

“They like to talk. They like that learning opportunity with engineers, to collaborate to create the next generation of technology,” he notes. “They will say, this is going to be more effective for my patients.”

Oliver adds that the eyeballing approach in his mantra is transferrable to other fields.

“Boeing develops flight simulators not only to train pilots, but to better understand how they think. That’s where the continued improvements come from. You will never discover that in focus groups or at a trade show.

“If you’re developing a ship, you have to get out there on the water,” Oliver concluded, sounding as if perhaps he had hit on another mantra.