Innovative Leadership and Customer Satisfaction

Mantra Design Innovate

Dana Oliver’s book Mantra Design Innovate provides amazing insights from a 30 year career innovating. It takes you inside your customer’s heads, showing how to identify their unmet needs to develop and introduce profitable and lasting innovation solutions. It’s a well thought guide book for product development professionals aspiring to introduce groundbreaking new technologies.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us Dana. The four mantra designs for innovation – what are they exactly and who are they designed for?

I think for me, I use mantras a lot in my leadership style. In order to be an effective leader you need to have to have consistent language that people understand and are accustomed to hearing. Mantras are a great way to take very complicated subjects and turn them into one little thing. So I use mantras a lot, not only in my leadership, but in my innovation philosophies.

I definitely have strong pillars. I firmly believe that you must focus on the few things that can move your top line needle. You have to develop products through your customers eyes employing emotionally intelligent leadership skills. Those are some of the foundations that I think are strong and can help whether you’re a start-up company or a 500 million or a billion dollar company. Those things make a difference. How to ferret out your customers unmet needs and turn them into market friendly products. That’s really what I subscribe to and what I believe in my innovation philosophy.

The goal of most organizations is purely to stay profitable. That often means just slapping a new coat of paint on a worn out concept or product. Being disruptive and keeping growth and change as a core value is frankly tough. How were you able to keep pushing innovative solutions to the forefront?

You know, I think for me, innovation’s always been a passion. I live and breathe it, that’s just who I am. If you want to be an innovation leader you have to be passionate about that. People knew when they came to me with a new idea, or some type of feature or modification, my eyes would brighten. I stood up from my chair, I got really close to people, and they could just see the excitement in me.

Everyone has work ethic cues, and people get tuned into your cues and behavior. If one of your cues is being on time for meetings, people will quickly realize, “Hey, I can’t be tardy for that.” For me, my cues were all about innovation. Sure, you can walk into my office and we can talk about the next procedure or how a program was running behind schedule. But I was all about innovation and my team knew that was one of my hot buttons. If they wanted to come spend time with me, boy they were all just burning it up to try to be the next person in line to get some time with me. So my passion and cues were a sure fire way to keep my team engaged and moving forward, because they knew I loved it and wanted to talk about it.

How do you make innovation an intrinsic part of your organization’s everyday culture?

The best thing to do is, if you’re talking to customers every day, and despite whether it’s a great conversation or a problem, if you want to be truly innovative, you focus on innovation in context. For instance, if you have a nifty feature, you’re kind of internalizing that and saying, “Hey this is great, this is one of those features that delights my customers.” Conversely, if you start to hear a customer complain about something, boy your ears should be starting to ring, thinking, “Hey that’s an opportunity for improvement.” And the harder that opportunity is for them to make better, boy then you should really start to dive into it, because that means you’re solving a problem your competition isn’t even thinking about. Or, it’s just too hard for them, they’re not focused on that. They’re focused on dismissing your customers and moving on to the next thing.

Today we see a world of innovation that seems complete disconnected from the reality of accepted business practices – like making money. How did the four mantra designs in your book help you understand profitable innovation? What experiences led you to have a profit mentality?

In good innovation, leaders should ask this question: “What good things are we not going to do?” This is really important to me. I don’t care what size your company is, whether you’re a start-up, a medium or a big company, there’s always more things to do than you can humanly complete. To get to profitable innovation you start to look at those things and say again, “What are the ones that are going to move the needle?”

The best rule of thumb is to get focused and start saying no.

You can’t please everybody and you have to force your leadership team to say, “Okay, what are the most strategically important things that we need to do, that are going to affect our top line?” Ask yourself, is it worth less than a million? Is it worth more than a million? Is it worth more than ten million? Even if you just ask one question about scale, then ask how difficult it would be, you’ll have a good sense of if it’s worth it to develop in that period of time. Doing that, you can keeping up with your product rollout cadence by planning and choosing projects farther ahead.

Can you tell us about the 85/15 rule you reference in mantra #11? Does it help people stay focused on a project?

I never allocate 100% of my resources. When I pick programs to start, I know they have to work out. So I’m only going to apply 85% of my resources that are going to move the needle, which means I assign the other 15% on working towards the future. By saving 15% of my resources, I leave them there pounding away on future innovation . But the best part is that if I hit a problem, I can assemble a fire-fighting force almost immediately. The key though, when you re-deploy those people after the emergency work, you have to allow them to go back to their original innovation issues, or their next generation features and platforms.

It’s all about focus. It starts at the beginning of the year; what are we going to commit to, what’s going to move the needle? Then, you allocate your people. They now have a priority of what they’re going to do and then, as the year moves forward, you have the plan, and you don’t let people deviate from the plan. Here’s the thing too, when you focus people, if you assign more than three things to people, your likelihood of completion begins to fall off precipitously. So the best rule of thumb is to assign no more than three things to each person. Usually this applies when one programmer is slow, or you’re waiting on a long-term vendor, you can then reallocate your time to the second or third issue. But, in the end you can only have one true priority, and you as the manager must remind them of it.

What do you see as some more common mistakes that people are making when they try to go about deploying innovation processes and trying to create a culture of innovation?

One thing is people, they get so fixated on their product that they fall in love with their technology (this is particularly common with start-ups), yet, they haven’t fully vetted their technology with actual customers. You need to be fearless and test. Don’t be afraid to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

For example, if you think the technology like DuPont, they develop Kevlar, their technology was fantastic, but the technology took 50 years before they could figure out where it fit. And then when they finally realized it had a great application for ballistics vests and artillery, it took off. Then, it grew by trying to create more efficient-running tires. Getting it from discovery to product took time.

So I have this rule: as you have new technology, show it to 12 to 20 different customers. Your customers will begin to give you feedback on its commercial viability. Listen really hard because within that feedback there’s going to be features that are the must-have features, and there will be nice-to-have features. You can’t confuse the two. That brings me to my software rule: you want to identify the 20% of features that delight 80% of your customers. You can’t keep everyone happy, but as you improve your technology, vet it with your customers because then you observe how your customers are working with your technology and gain valuable insights. Just make sure that you have them test it in a real working environment – otherwise their reactions and feedback won’t be genuine.

Dana, your book makes it clear that you see that in the innovation development process most of the time should be allocated to collecting data, understanding the customer, and learning – but not actually physically building the product. How does this gel with the current trends to build, ship, collect feedback, build the next version, repeat?

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for a quiet observation. This is really important for young product developers in particular – often times they’re poor listeners. They love their technology, and they’re so happy to try to introduce it to somebody. But if those early adopters share feedback that says the product is less than perfect, they already have a solution angle. They’re so busy formulating, “Oh, I understand that, but just do this,” which is exactly the wrong approach. The point is, they’ve lost the point. They’ve lost what their customers were trying to tell them to make it better. My advice is to listen, take notes, pay attention to the body language, and have multiple, quiet observers.

In terms of what your biggest advice for anybody is there any last minute advice that you want to give to any of our readers, or anybody who is trying to get into the innovation field?

For me, it’s about employing emotional intelligence. I read a book. It was called Primal Leadership by Daniel Goldman. It very much changed my perspective. At the end the day, if you lead with emotional intelligence, you can increase your team’s productivity by as much as 30% according to numerous studies. I believe in emotionally intelligent, innovative leadership. It’s vital to tune into people and understand how and what they are feeling, what drives them and what doesn’t, because when you do that, you get so much more out of your team.

I just wanted to mention if people like what they hear, if they want more interest, they can certainly go to my website, which is


Dana A. Oliver was the Senior Director of Research & Development at Medtronic’s Surgical Technologies division and helped grow this business unit from $100 million to approximately $2 billion in annual revenues over fourteen years. He has over 30 years of experience in the field of medical devices, working for such companies as Medtronic, Genzyme, SIMS Level 1, Kirwan Surgical, and Strichman Medical. Dana has been granted over 20 US patents to date. He is a graduate of Northeastern University and authored two books “Mantra Leadership – Don’t Become the Emperor with No Clothes!” and “Mantra Design – Innovate, Buy or Die!” To learn more about him and his services, please visit

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