As usual I had a great deal of fun conducting this CMO 2.0 Conversation with Rob Spencer from Pfizer – this one focused on innovation.
Rob started out by providing some context around his job and the innovation processes he manages at Pfizer – although he does not call them that, preferring instead “collaborative problem solving.” He helps people from all over the company tackle challenges through electronically facilitated problem solving techniques – and he does that for all sorts of problems, not just drug discovery related challenges.
The underlying process used for problem solving is actually an old one – one that he calls diverge/converge. First you define the problem, you lay out some clear goals, and you broadcast it widely . You then set up a review teams that includes technical reviewers as well as business people and you make sure that you have a good balance between people who will benefit from the solution and those who are willing to pay for any future solution. This latter concept is a very important one if you want to ensure that your solutions will get funded. Rob will typically assemble problem solving teams ranging from 200-4000 people, and occasionally will run problem solving challenges with tens of thousands of people.
Next we talked about the difference between collaborative problem solving and a social innovation process. You collaborate with people you know and they do it because it is part of their job. A social innovation process is one where people help you solve a problem without knowing one another and without it being a part of their job. Rob uses different language, based on Chris Anderson’s Long Tail concept, to mean the same thing. He talks about the head of business problem solving – which involves those people whose job it is to solve a problem in a very directed way – and the tail of problem solving – which involves electronic media to greatly expand the scope of people who may participate to groups whose job it is not to solve those problems. At Pfizer they use both the head and the tail, although there is a dominant use of directed innovation with the head of problem solving.
When we talked about breakthrough innovations at the edges Rob reminded us that innovation in health care is heavily constrained by the human genome – which is actually very small. Being bound like that by nature limits the innovations at the edges – most innovations in the health care space come from within the genome. This is why directed innovations work so well in the pharma space.
An interesting concept that Rob brought up is the importance of individual thinking in problem solving. While there are great benefits to be had from collaborative problem solving, collective individual problem solving is an important component of innovation as well. At Pfizer they try to have people first come up with individual ideas and only after that do they ask others and groups to build on and review these individual ideas.
As we have in other conversations, we also touched on the role of rewards in innovation. Rob uses recognition instead of reward. Of course there is an inevitable dichotomy when you deal with employee teams, especially with those at the head of business innovation. For them it is their job and therefore they get both rewards (in the form of salary and bonus) and recognition for solving problems. That being said, Rob reminds us that it is important not to monetize what are essentially social contracts. Monetary rewards can also be very distracting from the core business challenges at hand and add unnecessary bureaucracy to the business environment.
We also spoke about the role of constraints imposed by government regulations and patent law. Without constraints you have runaway innovation with people falling in love with every single idea that is being proposed.
Other things we talked about:
- The importance of technology to scale innovation to the far corners of your organization
- The need for proper framing of the challenge that is being considered – and the need to constraint the problem as well as expand the scope of the problem
- The benefits of scale in innovation
- How altruism may be a level above the highest level in the Maslow pyramid
- The importance of details and hard work in innovation
- How you could leverage fear to trigger altruism, but only occasionally – as opposed to good behavior which can be done chronically
- The importance of flexibility to change in promoting and recruiting people
As usual you can listen to the podcast on the CMO 2.0 site and soon we will publish a transcript.