Killer Innovations with Phil McKinney
An award-winning podcast that looks at the innovations that are changing our lives and how their innovators used creativity and design to take their raw idea and create game-changing products or services. Phil McKinney, retired CTO of HP and the creator, and host of Killer Innovations has been credited with forming and leading multiple teams that FastCompany and BusinessWeek list as one of the “50 Most Innovative”. His recognition includes Vanity Fair naming him the “The Innovation Guru”, MSNBC and Fox Business calling him "The Gadget Guy" and the San Jose Mercury News dubbing him the "chief seer".

September is National Peripheral Artery Disease Awareness month.  In view of this, today’s show is an edited re-broadcast of two shows from November 2017.   Kym McNicholas and I interview Ra Medical founder, Dean Irwin.  Dean shares his unusual path to medical innovation with some key lessons for innovators.

From TV Tubes to Thermonuclear Fusion

Dean started his journey of lifelong learning and discovery as a kid.  Tinkering with old television sets led to working in a television repair shop as an early teen.  He was self-taught, reading about electronics and buying test equipment with paper route money. Innate curiosity and boldness brought him to the door of Universal Voltronics at 16.  That cold call opened the door to designing circuits. People came alongside.  They taught Dean the corporate ropes and helped him develop his technical skills.  It was here he had a chance to work with an M.I.T. group on the Alcator program. This introduction to thermonuclear fusion opened a new world for Dean.

At 17, Dean moved from the east coast to California and joined General Atomics.  The physicists gave him exposure to different areas and helped him determine his strength in Applied Physics.  With experience gained at General Atomics, Dean launched his first startup. He built custom designed equipment for General Atomics.  He was 21. After a good run of six years, his company went bankrupt. Going through the bankruptcy was a learning experience.  As Dean says, “You actually build up a tool chest to help you navigate.”  It gives you the “hindsight” to help “predict some of these issues before they arise.”  

Charting a New Path

The bankruptcy didn’t stop him.  He teamed up with another startup.  This was the beginning of Dean’s foray into medical innovation.  Believe it or not, thermonuclear fusion was the groundwork for the medical innovation he spearheads today.   According to Dean, the path was straight. And it was a clear link between thermonuclear fusion and designing a treatment for atherosclerotic disease.  In fact, the transition from repairing televisions to working in thermonuclear fusion was no great leap. Dean has an innate curiosity. His transfer of knowledge and skills in one field to a seemingly unrelated field boils down to one question.  Why not? The principles are the same with different constraints.   

[shareable cite="Dean Irwin, Ra Medical CEO"]There are so many similarities in physics and in nature that you'll see the same problems solved perhaps many different ways, but with a very common thread. And that common thread can tie it all together. [/shareable]

Pushback?  Persevere.

The Ra Medical excimer laser has proven itself in over 500 cases.  It’s used in six countries and has gained FDA approval. It’s ease of use while cutting through plaque sets this product apart.   Add to this the positive patient outcome and cost-efficiency.

Dean connected similarities from nuclear fusion to medical innovation.  This has produced a design that is definitively outside of the box.  Others said it would not work.  Engineers, scientists and physicians were skeptical.  Unfazed by naysayers, Dean persevered.    He didn’t let innovation antibodies distract him.  He kept focus on the medical innovation that will impact people’s lives.  Breaking from the mold, he’s developed a product that is truly innovative.

If you’d like to learn the latest from Ra Medical, check out Linkedin or the Ra Medical Systems website.

Are you battling innovation antibodies?  Need some help with your innovation. Connect to a community of innovators who support each other through the innovation process?  Join The Innovators Community.

Direct download: Unusual_Path_to_Medical_Innovation__Ra_Medicals_Dean_Irwin_S14_Ep29.mp3
Category:Past Shows -- posted at: 4:14am PST

A recent event brought back to mind a blog I posted in January 2017 on the innovation economy.  A news agency reporting on a candidate running for governor referenced that blog post.  The candidate‘s platform is the innovation economy. It seems to be gaining traction this political season.  There is a drive for economic rebirth of urban areas or to reestablish the growth engine for states. This has turned eyes on the innovation economy.  

Some term it the “creative economy.”  Gary Hamel calls it the “new economy.”  I refer to it as the “innovation economy.”  But what exactly is it? The ability of people to create, innovate, and develop ideas, products, and services that generate value.  The value people place above the bill of materials is the innovation value. Done well that value elicits a margin premium, the growth engine of an innovation economy.

Turning the Downturn Around

Like the steel industry, which tanked in the 70s, a number of states in the U.S. have been facing economic downturn.  Their economies relied on industries that have slowed, shrunk or halted. Politicians are seeking economic growth engines to re-energize their state and local economies.  Places like Detroit are establishing programs, activities, and systems to attract creative people to relocate. They are seeking creative minds who will jump start the innovation economy with their ideas, products, and services.  

There are success stories - Boulder, CO; Portland, OR; Austin, TX and Boston’s Route 128.  These places built an innovation economy that flourishes, creating jobs and economic growth.  But it’s not a quick fix. Establishing a thriving innovation economy takes long-term commitment.  

Humble Beginnings to World Stage

From its beginning in a garage in Palo Alto, CA, HP became the match that started the flame.  Silicon Valley became a thriving innovation economy. This sparked highly creative, rapid growth and expansion in the tech industry.  Today, I can’t go anywhere without seeing the effects of that, even in name. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has become known as the “Silicon Prairie.”  

The innovation economy is changing the world.  Disruptions have spread across a variety of industries.   Crowd sharing technologies have allowed unexpected disruption.  Airbnb, the largest provider of overnight accommodation, does not own a hotel.  Uber, the largest provider of passenger transport, does not own a fleet of vehicles.  Brick and mortar retailers are closing as online retailers take over. The impact of the innovation economy is undeniable.  Don’t think any job is above that impact. One company uses chatbots and artificial agents to process and negotiate traffic tickets in court.  X-rays are sent overseas for diagnostics. Like it or not, the innovation economy is here to stay. Don’t let your sphere of influence sink. Get started building an innovation economy where you are.

Building the Innovation Economy in Your Sphere

So, what’s a politician or anyone who cares about their livelihood, their business, the place they call home to do? Start by asking the questions:

  • What are the rules by which an industry operates?
  • What would totally disrupt that industry?
  • What would happen if it turned on its head and completely changed?
  • What is that impact?  What is its unintended consequence?  Or its intended consequences?

Perhaps this has already happened in your area and you are left to deal with the unintended consequences.  Possibly an industry has dissolved and joblessness is an issue. Then you need to counter that by building a new, innovation economy.  

Whether you foresee what may happen or are dealing with the aftermath, ask:

  • What can I do to encourage a creative or innovation economy within my local area?

A good place to begin building the innovation economy is the education system.  Shift the teaching model. Move toward emphasis on STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math.  Students need to be prepared to compete in a new economy.  Students need to know how to use technologies that have not yet been invented to solve problems that don’t exist today.  To do this, educators must develop their students’ critical thinking skills.  They must help students find and exercise their creativity.  The classroom should be the incubator for teamwork, collaboration, leadership, and ideation.

Another segment of the population affected by disruption is the aging population.  This is something communities and politicians should be aware of. When industries decline, older workers face a dilemma: be jobless, retrain, or retire.  Left unaddressed, such concerns will put strain on the economy in areas such as social services. Make the investment now. Develop programs to prepare people for the innovation economy.  The innovation economy can also bring amazing means to enrich the lives of the aging.  Be attuned to the resources on the horizon that can make life better for the citizens in your community.

What’s Stopping You?

Massachusetts is experiencing phenomenal growth through its innovation economy.  It is a leader in economic output from the innovation sector. This takes years to cultivate.  Having impact in the innovation economy comes from having prepared workers. This means education that prepares students to work in the innovation economy.  In addition, it requires developing the means to attract creative talent.

The biggest barrier to an innovation economy is lack of ideas.  That goes hand in hand with creativity. Creativity has been stifled in our education system.  Yet, today the number one skill CEOs are looking for is creativity. Nurture creativity. And with that comes ideas.  Allow those ideas to develop and translate into innovations. Innovation is ideas made real.

The innovation economy impacts us all.  It is for us all. Anyone can take advantage of the innovation economy. Anyone can make their ideas real, make their innovations count, and contribute to economic growth.

I’d love to get your feedback on this show.  Post your comments at Killer Innovations or wherever you get this podcast.

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This episode of Killer Innovations was produced by The Innovators Network.
Direct download: The_Impact_of_the_Innovation_Economy_S14_Ep28.mp3
Category:Past Shows -- posted at: 2:41am PST

In a recent show, I talked about setting innovation objectives.  Listeners wrote in asking for details on how to include innovation in the objective setting process.   So, in this week’s show I share the steps to setting innovation objectives. Done well, innovation objectives can result in exponential success for your organization.

The purpose for setting objectives is to gain alignment in the organization.   Innovation success depends on getting everyone in the boat and rowing in the same direction.  When you incorporate innovation objectives into individual, team, and organizational objectives, you gain alignment.  This will be evident around the innovation focus, funnel, and strategy.


Setting innovation objectives is hard work.  Over the years, my approach has changed. In my days leading teams at HP, objectives did not provide clear guidance leaving engineers to figure things out.  When objectives are vague, people wonder whether what they’re doing aligns with the organization.  

Other issues arise when objectives are…

  • Too task-oriented leaving no room for creativity.  
  • Too rigid, locked in concrete until annual performance reviews.  
  • Too broad or include too many things creating a fog.   
  • Measurable, hence tied to performance review and annual budget cycles.  

Getting it Right

To help with setting innovation objectives, I’ve come to believe in OKRs (Objectives and Key Results).  Andy Grove, co-founder of Intel, defined this objective setting process. Many major companies are using OKRs today.  I use a simplified version of OKRs.  Think of the objective as the vision or goal line.  It’s where you want to go. The key results are the measurable steps to get you there.   When the objectives are clear and the key results align, the outcome is inspiring. People see a successful and meaningful impact in their efforts.  

To begin, I set the objective with two to five key results.  It can be set for one year to five years. Key results are laid out in a six-month rolling process.  Every six months, a key result is met and the next key result begins.

Alignment and autonomy are the overarching goals.  Get the entire organization aligned. Give employees the goal and allow them to use their creativity to achieve it.  Provide the direction and measurement of success. Leave the ‘how’ to them.

Advice on Setting Objectives

  • Take time to set objectives.  
    • I spend hundreds of hours, write and rewrite, and get feedback from others.
  • Make sure there is clarity.
    • Wording is important.  
    • Clarity is key to getting alignment.
  • Be transparent.  
    • Share objectives with others.
  • Avoid too many objectives.  
    • Three to five objectives with two to five key results for each.
  • Objectives should be adaptable.
    • Change the objective based on learning.
  • Objectives should be specific.  

Good Innovation Objectives

A basic element of good innovation objectives is a framework.  I use the FIRE framework.  FIRE stands for Focus, Ideation, Ranking, Execution.  I’ve done many blogs and shows over the past fourteen years on FIRE.  It’s also laid out in my bookBeyond the Obvious.  

Below I describe the FIRE framework and give examples of using it to develop innovation objectives.

  1. Focus.
    • Focusing the search for areas of innovation.
    • Three focus areas are “who”, “what”, “how”.
      • Example of “who”:  
        • What could be the focus over the next six months to learn more about who your customer is?
      • Example of “what”:
        • What focus areas should you set for your products or services.
      • Example of “how”:
        • Focus on how you operate, how you innovate your team/organization to be better than the competition.
    • The objective is to expand your search for areas of innovation.
    • The Key Result would be the steps that need to be taken to do the search.
    • Another objective could be relooking at old ideas.
  2. Ideation.
    • This is the generating of ideas.  “The fuel for innovation.”
    • Hundreds of ways to generate ideas (Thinkertoys, brainstorming)
    • Determine which tools work for your organization.
    • An objective could be “experiment with different approaches to creating ideas.”
    • Another objective could be “deploy an Idea Management System” (IMS).
  3. Ranking.
    • Fills your innovation funnel.
    • Score ideas and work on highest scored ideas first.
    • Examples of objectives around ranking:
      • Testing the scoring method
      • Determine if ranking approach draws out truly high-quality ideas.
      • Ensure the funnel is full of high quality ideas.
      • Re-score ideas in the IMS that are not in the funnel.
      • Search for external high-quality ideas.
  4. Execution.
    • Examples of objectives:
      • How many ideas are there in each phase of execution?
        • How many in market validation, customer validation, prototype, commercial launch?
      • How many proof of concepts working on or have shown.
      • Measure the end result of innovations that shipped. What was the impact?
      • Track your kill rate. How many ideas in each phase don't make it to the next phase?

Things to Keep in Mind

  • I keep a rolling 12 months of objectives and key results, broken up into 6-month increments.  Work on and complete key results in first six months, but have second set ready for the next six months.
  • Look back and assess which objectives and key results worked and which ones didn’t.  Adjust accordingly.
  • Test objectives after a while to see if they contribute to the long-term success and impact of the overall objective.
  • Share and learn from others.  Find out how others set objectives.  A great way to share and learn from other innovators is The Innovators Community, our online Slack community.  Join to share and get coaching and advice from the community of innovators.

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Five Minutes to New Ideas is now available as a standalone show.  It’s designed for the creative mind looking for that next great idea.  Listen on Apple iTunes, Spotify or at
Direct download: Setting_Innovation_Objectives_S14_Ep27.mp3
Category:Past Shows -- posted at: 6:34am PST

A key mission for an innovation leader is to motivate, support, and help your teams learn good innovation habits.  This should occur daily with each interaction. Modeling leadership habits and exhibiting leadership skills inspires employees to become leaders.  In today’s show, I share six questions I ask my employees. These questions encourage good habits and sharpen innovation leadership skills within my organization.

I weave the questions into one on one meetings with my direct staff and skip levels (those who report to my direct staff).  The questions reflect an innovation culture that is essential to success. Another element of refining the innovation culture is organizational objectives.  This year, my organization is redefining objectives. Using the objectives and key results framework (OKRs), focus is on the long-range vision.  This promotes thinking long term rather than on annual goals that tie to budget, pay raises, and bonuses.  To build a high impact innovation organization, you need to instill good leadership skills and habits in line with long-range goals.  So, here are the six questions that can help move your organization in that direction.

Six Questions to Ask Your Employees

1. What went well since we last met?  

Once you ask the question, sit back and listen.  Give employees the opportunity to relate their successes and share….

  • What their priorities were.
  • Where they made good progress.
  • Who played a key role in that success.
  • Who helped, even outside the team/department.
  • What's next.

Offer sincere support and appreciation.  Stay in the loop on where they're heading.  Provide coaching and mentoring. Reinforce that innovation is a team sport.  Help them get into the habit of giving credit to others who’ve contributed to the team’s success.  Giving credit to others is vital to good innovation leadership skills.

2. What went wrong and what did you learn from it?

We will always have things that go wrong, mistakes that happen.  Nothing is completely in our control.  The key is to put it on the table. Don’t hide it when things go off course.  Encourage employees to share what went wrong and what they’ve learned.

The benefits of doing this…

  • Others in the organization can learn how to avoid the same or similar pitfalls.  
  • They’re in good company.  Good innovation teams tend to have an 80 to 90% failure rate.  
  • It’s liberating for the organization if leaders are willing to share their mistakes or failures.  
  • It shows support for experimentation.

3. What did you find that was broken or could be improved?  What did you do to fix or improve it?

This gives people permission to go fix things.  IF YOU SEE IT, FIX IT.

What employees learn from this:

  • We are all in this together.    
  • Don’t find something wrong, then point to someone else to fix it.
  • Silos and turf should not exist.  If you can fix it, don’t worry that it’s not in your department.

4. What did you do to help create a motivating environment?  Who did you catch doing something right?

When someone pitches an innovation idea, what is the reaction?    In our organization, we give out gift cards to recognize employees’ efforts and good innovation habits.  

To create a motivating environment…

Good leaders find people who are doing right.  Then they reinforce it by acknowledging it publicly.  This shows others what habits and actions to strive for in their team and organization.  

5. What roadblocks are you facing that I could help clear for you and your team?

As a leader, your job is to be the filter, sifting out things that hinder team productivity.  Roadblocks can be anything from issues with purchasing to a cumbersome process for expense reporting.  Nothing is too insignificant. If there is an admin issue they’ve tried to resolve, but can’t, you as the leader should step in.  Leaders should remove the barriers so that their teams can stay focused on what’s important. Don't let sand get in the gears and slow things down. The pace of innovations is accelerating.  We have to find ways to drive productivity and efficiency.

6. What else would you like to talk about?

This open-ended question allows your employees to share something that might be weighing on their mind.  It gives you the opportunity to see where you could make a difference.  One of my organization’s core values is “candor with respect.”  This gives employees confidence to be honest and transparent free from concern about negative reactions.  Protect confidentiality so employees feel they can open up. I’ve had employees present challenges in their personal lives.  In some cases, I’ve been able to help. The results have improved employee morale and generated positive change for the organization.

I hope these questions will help you inspire innovation leadership skills in your sphere of influence.

Want to share your experiences and learn from others in the innovation world?  Join The Innovators Community.

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Five Minutes to New Ideas is now available as a standalone show.  It’s designed for the creative mind looking for that next great idea.  Listen on Apple iTunes, Spotify or at