“I’ve Created a Factory for Ideas”: Scaling Innovation With Homer Swei
Homer Swei is a very calm guy. His speech comes in measured sequences, moving with a kind of low-key adagio tempo. It almost seems pegged to a different metronome than the present.
Perhaps it’s because Homer—way back before he earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering, became a scientist and had a drawer full of patents to his name—was an artist.
“Even now,” he said, “I can’t help it: I have this basic need to create. I feel strange if I’m not creating.”
Being so inclined, he began to think critically about a paradox in the way many businesses operate. “I became really curious: Why is it that only a few people have the chance to be creative or to innovate a lot of the time? It never made sense to me to think ‘Oh, you’re a finance person, you can’t do anything else’ or ‘You’re a sales person, you can’t do anything else.’ Don’t each of us have a full brain to use?”
Homer came to think of this as the “problem” of innovation: who gets to do it, how it happens and why. He also arrived at a solution—a novel, scalable, highly inclusive process that he calls, alternately, “reverse innovation” or “idea proofs.”
Today, Homer’s insight is helping us bring bold ideas to life.
Reverse Innovation: A Practical Guide
What does Homer’s process look like? How does it work in practice?
It all starts with the setting, according to Homer.
“The reason your best ideas come to you when you’re in the shower or out on a jog is that your brain is totally relaxed in those moments,” he said. “At the same time, you’re also focused and receptive. You’re in a state of mind where, seemingly out of nowhere, new ideas are likely to come to you.”
It’s for this reason that Homer is careful to cultivate a low-pressure environment. For example, he’ll kick off each session with simple conversational prompts: What have you been thinking about this week? What have you and your friends or colleagues been talking about? From there, it’s pretty simple: People start talking.
For Homer, this is a key part of the process. He calls it “conversation capture.”
“It doesn’t matter where we start—that’s just a seed,” Homer explained. “But as the conversation evolves, I’ll start taking notes, documenting and mapping each part of it. Every so often, I’ll hear something interesting and make a note of it. Then people start responding to that, and gradually these really big-picture ideas start to emerge.”
Of his own role in the process, Homer said, “All I’m trying to do is to get something out of your head and onto a piece of paper. Anyone can do this—anyone can take part in this process. Interns can do it. Non-technical folks can do it. I think I’ve found a way to tap the full brains of Johnson & Johnson employees.”
There are clear benefits for participants, too. “There are amazing skills—and amazing insights—that you’ll gain along the way,” he said.
While the process itself is iterative and continually evolving, a few guideposts have proven useful for Homer. He called out several:
- Focus on personal experience
- Separate the critical mind from the creative mind
- Relax your brain
- Be passionate during concept development
- Create a safe space for dialogue
- Rate and discuss the merits of ideas at the end
“Some of the things we’re developing are really, really cool,” Homer added. “Really, really cool.”
How Will YOU Help Change the Future of Health?
If you’re looking for an inclusive company where bold ideas are always valued—and where your unique perspective and experiences can be the seeds of health breakthroughs—you should check out all of the opportunities we’re hiring for today.
In the meantime, why not sign up for our Global Talent Hub, too? It’s an excellent way to stay in touch, learn more about our culture and even get updates about jobs that might interest you in the future.
Meet the Person Revolutionizing Product Stewardship at Johnson & Johnson
In the next decade, healthcare will continue to transform, evolve and expand, with old models being replaced by innovative new methods that promise to bring better care to everyone. That means new treatments, new approaches to product development and even entirely new roles within the healthcare space.
Take product stewardship, for example. What exactly is it? And why is it so vitally important to our mission at Johnson & Johnson?
To find out, we caught up with Homer Swei, Director of Product Stewardship at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. He told us about some of the amazing work he and his team are doing every day—and why he believes we can change the world through product stewardship.
Rewriting the Formula for Product Stewardship
Broadly speaking, product stewardship refers to an ethical commitment that covers the full life span of a product. Typically, that commitment is tied to a specific goal, like reducing the product’s environmental impact or improving customer health and wellness.
But Homer has a different—and more ambitious—definition in mind when he talks about product stewardship at Johnson & Johnson. After all, we’re the world’s largest broadly based healthcare company, with products that touch the lives of billions of people every day. And Homer believes that with unrivaled scale comes unrivaled opportunities for impact.
Sustainability? Compliance? In Homer’s view, these are fine places to start from—but they aren’t the finish line.
“The story of product stewardship originates in a compliance mindset,” Homer explained. “But at Johnson & Johnson, what we’re doing is something very different. It’s something much broader and built into all of the work that we do.”
As an example of that, Homer explained that product stewardship is holistically integrated into the innovation process at Johnson & Johnson from end to end. That means product stewardship is “embedded in our work,” as Homer said. “It’s not something that gets tacked on as an afterthought.”
To maximize his impact, Homer’s role entails working not only with internal teams but with a range of external stakeholders as well. For instance, he routinely meets and speaks with other companies, healthcare professionals, environmental groups, nonprofits and government agencies, among others.
“I bring the conversations we’re having inside of Johnson & Johnson to my conversations with external groups,” Homer said. “Then I take the conversations I have out there and bring them back with me to Johnson & Johnson. That way, we all get smarter.”
Envisioning a Career in Product Stewardship
Like a lot of us, Homer has a STEM background. He studied engineering as an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley before going on to earn a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Northwestern.
But after working a few years with large chemical companies, Homer felt something was missing. He didn’t just want to design and make new materials. Instead, he wanted to make a positive impact on the world at a large scale. That’s what attracted him to Johnson & Johnson—and a career in product stewardship.
“My purpose matches the company’s purpose,” Homer said. “I love the people here and their dedication. You can see that Our Credo is very much alive in all of the work that we do. It’s not an abstraction. It’s something that pulls everybody together.”
Homer, who describes himself as an engineer, consumer advocate and artist (“because there’s an art to what I do”), added, “Here’s how much I love my job: Honestly, if they stopped paying me, I would keep doing it as a hobby.”
So, what makes for a successful career in product stewardship?
“My entire career has had to do with ingredients,” Homer said. “I’ve worked with ingredients, studied regulations around ingredients, supported ingredients—I’ve done all of it!”
Yet when it comes to finding your path to a career in product stewardship, Homer insists “there’s no one recipe to get here.”
Find Your Own Path Today
Ready to chart your own career path alongside people like Homer? At Johnson & Johnson, we’re not only innovating and disrupting every day, but doing so in a way that’s guided by a clear ethical vision, with the end goal of changing the trajectory of human health. Whether you’re here for a year or for a decade, there’s no end to the impact you can make when you apply your passion and expertise to our collective purpose.