How Pfizer Disrupted the Traditional Innovation Conference

January 14, 2015

A senior R&D leader at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer raved to us last November about the innovation gathering he’d just been to. “It was like TEDMED meets ‘The Apprentice,'” he said, which didn’t sound anything like the typical innovation conference put on by a major multi-national. We asked Julio Corredor, who organized the event, to tell us how he structured it and what made it work.

The Worldwide Innovation Conference is the premier cross-Pfizer innovation event of the year, bringing together 150 Pfizer colleagues from all functions, geographies, and levels — along with a webcast audience of over 2,500. The Pfizer Worldwide Innovation team has run this event for the last six years, with the goal of motivating and inspiring Pfizer colleagues to drive innovation through hearing ideas from outside of Pfizer, meeting the network of Pfizer innovation champions, sharing knowledge, and gaining access to new tools and learnings.

Last November, the conference theme was “EXplosion: Disrupting business-as-usual.” We explored this theme from four perspectives:

  • Disruption in the world at large — looking at trends and innovations that will change the world as we know it;
  • Disruption in the workplace — how we can create a work environment that supports new thinking;
  • Disruption at the individual level — because innovation starts with each one of us;
  • Disruption for patients — because Pfizer’s purpose is to innovate to bring therapies to patients that significantly improve their lives.

Given that the theme of this year’s meeting was disruption, the team sought to disrupt several elements of a traditional conference experience. An example is the unique way we started the conference. Small groups of attendees were instructed to gather at different locations around Manhattan and look for a person holding a white umbrella. These groups were then informed that they would be visiting innovative organizations such as Charity Water, Google, and LinkedIn to get an overview of how these companies approach innovation.

People returned from the visits energized, which set a powerful tone for the rest of the event. This approach not only disrupted the normal conference flow by starting outside the main conference venue, but it also allowed our attendees to experience a very different work environment than that of Pfizer.

External speakers were a core element of the conference experience. Attendees had the opportunity to hear from visionary and inspirational speakers such as Jay Walker, founder of the company Priceline and chairman of the TEDMED conference, who spoke on disruptive trends, and Amy Purdy, a double-amputee, runner-up on the U.S. television show Dancing with the Stars and Paralympics bronze medalist, who discussed how to overcome tremendous obstacles. Attendees also heard patient stories that reinforced the key role that disruption has in helping Pfizer achieve its mission and purpose.

Attendee feedback from the live and webcast participants was extremely positive. The post-event overall ratings from a very seasoned crowd averaged 4.85 out of 5, which confirmed the power of the conference experience. We also doubled our WebEx online audience from the previous year.

Summing about the conference and their experience, two colleagues said:

“I’ve told everyone I know (including my mother!) how wonderful this was and how well it was organized. I learned a tremendous amount and met so many interesting colleagues whom I never would come across any other way.”

“I returned refreshed to work, with a new outlook on my role and with ideas that I could apply immediately. Not only was the EXplosion event a highlight of 2014, but it helped me form relationships that I am confident will have an impact in our business throughout 2015.”

This kind of response is a strong motivator as we start to put together the 2015 conference!

Julio Corredor is Director of World Wide Innovation at Pfizer.