How Pfizer Works to Foster a Culture of Innovation

By Kelsey Alpaio |  January 18, 2017

Almost a decade ago, Pfizer, the $48 billion pharmaceutical company based in New York, set out to create an innovation framework. But at the time, each part of the business was embarking on its own separate innovation journey.

That was better than not pursuing innovation at all, says Dan Seewald, Senior Director of Worldwide Innovation at Pfizer and Head of the Dare to Try Initiative. But it presented a challenge for the 100,000-person, global organization. “If you don’t have a common vernacular, if you don’t have a common culture, if you don’t have the same frame of reference…then you lose the scalability and the impact of having one program, one mindset, and one social movement,” says Seewald.

To tackle that challenge, Seewald and his team set out to create a unified innovation and experimentation framework. This framework, known as “Dare to Try,” is comprised of a variety of tools, behavioral expectations, a champion network, and training sessions, all dedicated to helping individuals and teams around the company create innovative solutions, and more importantly, instill an innovative mindset and culture within the organization as a whole.

We sat down with Seewald to learn more about the development of this framework; the development of the network of champions; how the organization measures the success of the Dare to Try initiative; and the importance of creating an “brand” that innovators connect to.

The Goals of Dare to Try

Very broadly speaking, Dare to Try started as an innovation and experimentation corporate program, and the goal was to enable Pfizer colleagues to be able to think more like an entrepreneur, which is to think different, take thoughtful risks, and really be disciplined in how they experiment or test new ideas. The goals, when it launched a few years ago, were about giving people hands-on experience with the “Dare to Try” framework, tools, mindset, and techniques — to be able to generate real examples that [Dare to Try] has business impact. Long-term, [our goals were] around embedding a culture of innovation and experimentation across the organization.

We’ve evolved from a program to being a mindset, and even more importantly now, a social movement within the Pfizer organization…When you look at the most powerful grassroots movements in organizations, it’s not just the top of the organization that is mandating “thou shalt be innovative and entrepreneurial.” It’s more that the people in the organization, wherever you look around the world, are asking for this. They want to be the change and they want to accelerate change in the everyday. From where [Dare to Try] started to where it is today, I believe that we are fulfilling that mission of being able to drive change and innovation…at Pfizer.

Everybody talks about innovation within the corporate setting: “We have to be more innovative, more nimble or agile.” We realized that within our organization and within our industry, for a 100,000-person organization to be successful in the long-term, we need to be able to harness the mindset that allows us to be agile everyday. Healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and life sciences are changing really fast. If we don’t…inculcate [an innovative] mindset and culture within our people, then we’re not going to thrive in the long run. [Culture change] is not easy in a highly-regulated, traditional industry — in a very entrenched company that’s been around for more than 150 years. So it means doing pretty drastic things to be able to drive home this innovation culture.

[Our innovation program is] something that happened over time…We built a brand around this, both in terms of naming the program, to iconography, style, and training. …It didn’t happen overnight. I think that if we’d started out with a centralized approach, it may not have worked in the long run. I think allowing there to be drift in the beginning allowed us to have more exposure across the different businesses, but then coming in and really driving one culture and one program — that ultimately was important. I think eventually you have to come to a centralized approach, otherwise, you just have competing cultures within one organization, which in my opinion is not a great thing to have.

 Recruiting Innovation Champions

[Our recruitment of innovation champions] started out as a nomination process, like a lot of companies do, and we gave a broad profile of what a good champion looks like. When we talk about what a good champion is, there’s six attributes or characteristics. Not everyone has it in equal proportion…[A champion may be] innately a good ideator, they are good in front of a group, or a strong facilitator…

They’re good in front of a room so they can train, inspire, and lead a group. They can shepherd or lead a project, they can drive momentum after a session, they can role model and also mentor teams and individuals. And last, but certainly not least, they can be an evangelist or an advocate within the organization. So maybe someone doesn’t have enough time to facilitate or train, but they’re really evangelical about the “gospel of innovation” and Dare to Try. We recognize not every person is going to be equally good in each of these areas, so you try to engage people based on what they’re really good at.

…Some people were nominated because it was convenient, or because they felt there was a decent chance they would be a good fit. Initially, our first round of champions were identified, many of them persisted in the network, but not everyone was perfectly cut out for it, and they may have gone inactive. [We learned that] nomination, when you leave it to the devices of other folks, you don’t always get a perfect fit.

We’ve moved from there to more of a voluntary approach, and the volunteer approach is people nominating themselves, and other people, managers, approving it. I would say our retention rate went up a lot higher when it [became] volunteer. Now, we’re trying to take it to the next level, which is using predictive analytics and a multi-level approach where the champions who are really strong and really passionate help us identify the future champions. We’re going to be running some experiments over this year. In a 100,000-person organization, we believe that between 3 to 5 percent of people really are a good fit, which is 3,000 to 5,000 individuals in the organization.

But just because somebody may not be a great champion, that doesn’t mean they may not be a great part of the Dare to Try network. Someone might be really good at organizing or participating in sessions. They might be a strong ideator, but just perhaps aren’t cut out to be in the process of facilitating. So, we want everybody to have a strong baseline knowledge so everybody can be a part of of the innovation experimentation program. I think of it as the democratization of innovation.

Keeping Champions and Innovators Involved

[Keeping people involved in the champion network takes] a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Specifically, when I think about intrinsic motivations, it’s getting people who really are a good fit…recognition for what they’re doing, giving them opportunities to be exposed to other parts of the business, and [giving them the opportunity to] see really cool projects and challenges that they otherwise might not see in their day-to-day. It’s also about their managers and their leaders knowing that they’re making a difference and impacting the organization. There’s the extrinsic factors as well. We’re trying to give people additional upskilling opportunities. We’re also trying to provide master classes and meetups — opportunities to build your skills not just as a champion, but also as a leader and as an innovator.

There’s also other things that [we do] in terms of rewards. We’re using game mechanics now, so that our champions can see how they compare to other champions, and their managers can see what they’ve done. I would say last but not least…it’s showing them that me and my team [are] also out there doing all these things ourselves. We’re not telling them to do something we wouldn’t do. We’re right there in the trenches, running workshops and sessions. We walk the walk as much as we talk the talk, if not more. I think that’s a really important factor in keeping people engaged.

There are roughly 500 champions, and the number grows every year. What causes it to go up or down is some people leave the company, and some people get promoted to much more senior positions, and they’re managing bigger teams and they can’t be active, so they become “inactive” champions. We have a couple hundred champions who are inactive, who are more senior in the organization, or are doing other things where they can’t commit to being in the active network of running sessions, training, events and so on…We recognize that your day job is what pays the bills. There are only a handful of people who are dedicated full-time to Dare to Try across the enterprise, and our volunteer corps use 5 to 10 percent of their time [for Dare to Try], and that’s going to vary based on the person. We recognize that the leaders that they report to might say, “This is cool that you’re doing this, but you have to do your job.”

Utilizing Analytics to Improve Dare to Try

As far as analytics for champions, we’re still figuring that out. [We do] look at our champion network and at the organization and we ask ourselves, “Based on where our champions are, and based on the business, where are there gaps geographically, business-wide, and organizationally?” We want to work with leaders to highlight where those gaps may be and encourage them to work with us to identify where there are opportunities for new champions.

We use a lot of other analytic approaches [to] understand and improve our trainings and workshops. We do a tremendous amount of surveying. We’ll run campaigns on creating awareness and socializing stories about Dare to Try.

We look at everything from click rates, what they’re doing, how long they’re on [the site.] An example is, we just ran a campaign called “A Little Help From Our Friends,” and this campaign was to highlight a story of where Dare to Try really had a huge business impact for Pfizer. In that campaign, we ran it in five markets in Europe first before going global. We had over 18 different test arms that we ran with different subjects, different visuals, different calls to action, and we analyzed all those trying to come up with the optimal design. Our initial hypotheses were debunked after we looked at the cold, hard metrics. That allowed us to design a better campaign.

We’re also really interested to understand the thinking styles of really strong champions. There’s a variety of different psychometrics out there—from Myers Briggs to DISC—and there are a couple specific to innovative thinking styles, like FourSight and the Herrmann Brain Assessment. We’ve asked ourselves, could you design better innovation teams…based on the type of assessment they take? So if you want to build a team to be able to solve a problem, and you’re in the early stage of problem definition and insight gathering, using those thinking styles could be a way to design your optimal team. We often know on gut who we think are the right people to mix, but having thinking styles would allow you to use more of a psychometric and analytic approach towards recruiting and designing teams for high performance…We have not yet really implemented it, but it’s something that we’re looking to experiment with.

Measuring Results

Activity doesn’t necessarily get results, but it’s a marker — a surrogate for results. From an activity standpoint, we are tracking the number of workshops that are conducted. We’re looking at the number of champions in our network, and we look at feedback on those champions and their sessions. So we get a sense of if these sessions, workshops, and trainings are effective. Then the next question is, if you’re getting activity, is it driving results?

Now you have to define what does it mean to have results? For me, there are two sides of it. There’s the behavioral and the cultural piece, which is absolutely critical. For example… let’s say you spark somebody at a session, who’s not been trained even as a champion, but they’ve been to a session and they’ve been inspired. They’re working on something in their spare time, and you create the forums, the inspiration, and the creative collisions for them to build something that’s really amazing. Then, you see a year later, they say, “Hey I created this, I used a couple of the tools, I partnered with this person…” It’s hard to track that on a metrics basis, so you have to curate those stories — [which] means you have to listen and you have to ask.

The culture piece [is] so important and hard to measure. The answer for me is, you have to measure this over time and ask the right questions. We do an innovation climate survey every year. It is statistically representative across all of our businesses and all of our regions, and it allows us to see things like the physical environment motivating people to think and be more creative, and how leaders can enable and empower people to do creative things. We ask about 20-25 questions. It’s based on a variety of work and research that’s been done in the field of applied creativity and innovation. It allows us to drill down and see organizationally how we’re doing and how our culture compares. We’re finding consistently that we’re doing really well from that cultural standpoint.

The other half, besides culture, is business impact, both strategic and financial. A couple of years ago, we looked at all of the workshops that produced ideas and experiments. We went to the teams and we worked with our internal finance [group] to say, “Can we monetize any of the results? Was there business impact that drove the business in a measurable way?” We were able to monetize quite a few of them and show that if we had not run this session, and this team had not gone through this process…it wouldn’t have produced this business impact. And some of that goes into direct measurement from their operating plans, so did they increase or grow their operating plan based on that work?

What I think is more important is being able to identify examples and stories that do have some monetization connected to them… We try to identify those stories within the organization…because stories will live longer than a dashboard will. For me, the thing that I look at is when somebody sends me a message or stops me in the hallway and says, “I’m thinking about Pfizer and what we do in a whole different way, I’m so excited to do this now.” One inspired person can change the world, and the more people you can inspire consistently, the more difference you’re going to make. It’s just hard to show that as a metric.

Getting Executive Buy-In

I really do believe that while the grassroots are important, it’s also important that you have leadership engagement. If your leaders say “Yeah, that’s nice, but we have other things to do,” and they actively discourage participation, then you’re never going to get traction. It’s always going to be a skunkworks operation. We’re really lucky because our CEO really gets and endorses Dare to Try, and also how important culture is to us as an organization.

He’s really been a big proponent of Dare to Try and this broader movement across Pfizer called “OWNIT!”. OWNIT! is this idea that you’re responsible, that you’re accountable, and that you have to own it. You have to own your own innovation, you have to own your own culture within your team in the organization. He drives that and talks about it on a very consistent basis, externally and internally. But if it was only him, they would just say, “It’s the CEO, it’s just lip-service.” But the truth of the matter is, his entire executive leadership team has bought in.

We had [the executive leadership] at an off-site working on an initiative, and they all went along with doing some of these innovation or Dare to Try-related activities, and they were fully bought in. They participated, they lived it, and they also actively encouraged the people in their organization to do it…When you get that type of leadership support, it helps galvanize the grassroots.

I think the other question is, as you have new leaders come in, and other people want to put their own imprint [on things], how do you make sure they stay aligned with Dare to Try? I think that it’s our responsibility to give them the context, to educate them, to make it known what’s available to them. They don’t need to recreate the wheel and say, “Hey, we need to create our own innovation approach.

“If I had to make a recommendation to somebody leading a new program or trying to create a program, I would say that you have to get the senior sponsorship…You’ve got to move up the chain to get that buy-in, and it’s not always that easy. There might be a lot of selling, because you’ve got make it real for them so they can see it.

Branding Your Innovation Initiative

One day I woke up and I said to myself, “Are we leading Dare to Try as a program, or are we treating it more like a brand?” I’ve talked about it being a social movement, but it also is a brand. What I mean by that is, if people just see it as something to do, it’s a program. Programs come and go. But if you treat it like a brand, it’s got a brand identity, you have iconography, and you have characters people can identify with. Think about the Geico gecko. People associate with it. People identify with brands.

If you can get people to identify with your program as a brand that they’re a part of, that they can own a slice of — then you’ve done your job. So you have to be a marketer as much as you are a change agent, an innovator, a facilitator, and a trainer. You have to build brand equity, and it’s not easy to do. It takes time, and you have to earn it. I ask myself all the time, “What’s our brand promise? What’s our positioning? Who are our segments? What do we want to be?” I don’t hear a lot of people talk about innovation in their organization as a brand, and I think they should.