Lessons on Innovation from the Field

Roger Morton is a logistician whose work for MSF in Iraq inspired him to design and develop a personal decontamination kit. Roger leads the Protection Against Chemical Exposure (PeACE) Kit Case, supported by the SIU and the Sapling Nursery Grant. In this blog he shares some of his key learnings from the innovation process.

They say that giving advice on success is like telling someone the winning lottery numbers for last week. With that in mind, here is some information I wish I could have given myself when I started my proposal for the Sapling Nursery Grant. I don’t know all the answers, but this blog will hopefully provide any future awardee an insight into the learning curve you’ll go through to make your innovation a reality.

Promise to solve a problem. Don’t promise a solution.

Make sure you clearly define your problem. Once you have a problem, you can find a solution. It sounds so straight-forward, but the temptation is to jump into the design because it’s fun. It’s a mistake we all make. A clearly defined problem helps you make decisions and allows you to evaluate the success of the final product. Don’t forget to create a design specification. What must your design be like? What should it be like? And what could it be like?


Let the ideas flow 

Definitely make enough time for background research. I design best when I should be doing something else, which is also what my school reports used to allude to. So, if you have a long boring stretch of research to do, let the ideas flow, but write them down, and get back to the research. Be sure to photograph or rigorously document your initial ideas. Looking back at my project, I subconsciously developed my solutions while I was struggling on with my research. Thorough research also reduces the chances of re-doing someone else’s work.

Try to find someone who has already solved some or all of your problem. The grant is about finding a solution to a problem, so if someone has already done it, MSF and ultimately, it’s patients still benefit if you just find that there is a solution. So, if you can, find out who has done it already, tell MSF, and go ahead and solve another problem.

Finally work out your important milestones in your project and how long you think each task will take. Then double it.

Don’t forget to estimate a conservative figure for how much everything will cost. Research is key here. Remember VAT! (Valued Added Tax) and add a budget of 5% for miscellaneous expenses. 

Assume you will get the grant, so beware what you promise. I promised that my solution would be so simple I could do it blindfolded, so that’s what I had to do.

Grant chart for project management

Grant chart for project management

Four learnings to keep in mind

Firstly, Engineers are logical, people are not! My decontamination kit is designed to be used in one of the most terrifying situations anyone can face, so I had to accept early on that logic and rational thinking of the user is out of the question. In the book ‘the design of everyday things’ there is a story about a power station that nearly exploded because an engineer designed the control board. The layout of buttons made sense on paper, but not to a person panicking. Make sure you design for the end user, not you.

Secondly, never go into a meeting without a prototype. Prototyping is the best way to fail fast, which is a good thing! The sooner you fail, the sooner you can get working on the right design. Prototypes show people what you’re thinking and act as a quick way for you to see if your idea works, and how to improve it.

The sooner you fail, the sooner you can get working on the right design.

Third, if you’re not embarrassed by your product, then you didn’t do it quick enough. Prototyping isn’t about getting something to look good, it’s about getting something to work. People can’t help you if they can’t see what you’re trying to do. Also, having a shambolic prototype to show people also shows them later on the contrast with a high quality product and therefore they are naturally involved with the story of the product development.

Fourth, sometimes you have to kill your babies. Anyone who puts their heart and soul into a design will naturally want to protect it and see it do well. However, collaboration is key to any design process, and sometimes someone else has a better idea. If you resist new ideas life will get very hard and you’ll probably miss some great opportunities. See collaboration as weight lifted rather than a personal attack. It will feel like you’re killing your babies, but know that you signed up to that when you began. 

Lessons from Iraq

Here are some lessons I learnt from my assignment in Iraq, that I applied to creating the lean decontamination kit.

Strive for excellence, not perfection. Try to figure out what you need to do to make something good enough. Designers call this a minimum viable product, which is a fancy way of saying, don’t waste your time and MSF’s money by trying to make something better than it needs to be. You’ll never survive an MSF mission if you try to be a perfectionist in everything you do.

Strive for excellence, not perfection. Try to figure out what you need to do to make something good enough.

If you can get someone else to do something, get them to do it. MSF would rather you achieved a lot by getting other people to help, rather than you achieving a little all by yourself. In school it was bad to cheat with homework and exams. In a war zone cheat where you can so that you can save lives.

If someone is enthusiastic, find them something to do. Motivating volunteers is very difficult, so if someone hears about your idea and wants to help, do your best to find out their skills and interests, and send work their way. Do your best to find a way to thank them.