How a Global Network of Innovators Impacted the Culture at Pfizer


Pfizer was at a pivotal juncture in 2013. The company was facing an uphill struggle to revive the organization. Several patent-protected brands — Viagra and Lipitor most notably — were approaching patent expiration, and the company was facing uncertain times. Investors were skittish and employees were increasingly anxious. The CEO, Ian Read, recognized that Pfizer had to signal to both its employees and investors alike that innovation would transcend merely having a pipeline of innovative products; it also would need to create a pipeline of innovative people.

But building an innovation culture is easier said than done. And large companies routinely see their culture programs launch and then vanish within a couple of years.

From the outset, my team faced the question of how to make an innovation culture last. The traditionalists argued that a top-down, leader-led program would have the force of urgency and compliance. But they also acknowledged that leader-mandated programs can feel forced and sometimes lack broad buy-in. Alternatively, the corporate insurgents advocated for a grassroots approach. Employee-driven, grassroots movements can bring a genuine, scrappy, and enervating feeling to the company. But grassroots movements can fizzle or end up adrift. And of course there were those who believed we could have the best of both worlds by creating a Potemkin-like grassroots movement while controlling the outcome. That can work — until the truth is discovered.

Given the options, we felt we had to create a new way. To find inspiration, we eschewed the traditional corporate change management examples that many of the consultancies had taken off the shelf. Instead, we looked at various disciplines including high-performance sports teams, political networks, and education. One model that captivated my interest was the Montessori Method, which emphasizes guided choice, encouraging freedom within limits, and building a reliance on networks of experienced peers to help reinforce learned concepts. Borrowing from the Montessori principles, we set out on a multi-year journey to construct a distributed network of experienced peers — our innovation champions.

Creating a Network of Champions

The champions spanned all geographic regions and represented the various divisions in the corporation. And although the champions operated with considerable autonomy, the network did not function in isolation. Because “multiple sources of exposure to an innovation are required before an individual adopts the change of behavior,” to quote the academic researchers Damon Centola and Michael Macy, my headquarters-based team complemented their efforts by pulsing periodic, integrated marketing campaigns and cultural initiatives to help spread the “cultural contagion.”

The role of the champion centered on three objectives:

  1. to evangelize the innovation culture, which became known as the “Dare to Try” culture,
  2. to apply innovation practices and behaviors to local teams, and
  3. to mentor and coach members of the network.

The champions operated within local geographic clusters, and each network cluster formed over time their own internal identity (e.g. “The Dare to Try Pioneers”), unique communication channels, and localized strategic plans to advance the Dare to Try culture. These networks proved to be an effective means of reaching employees in an authentic way. With only 600 champions in the network, we estimated that these champions were able to reach a majority of Pfizer’s 90,000 employees on multiple occasions.

Changing How We Recruited Champions

The networks were highly self-directed, but not a traditional grassroots initiative. The guiding hand from our headquarters-based team focused on accelerating the influence of these distributed networks. The two primary areas of intervention were network formation and network retention. From a network formation perspective, our team designed and tested methods of recruiting champions into these networks. The initial approach was to use a leader nomination process in which “high potential” colleagues were recruited. But by the end of the first year, the attrition rate was relatively high, and research pointed to a combination of “change fatigue” and poor fit for the role.

To solve the attrition problem with our early champions, we decided to conduct a series of experiments, rather than merely speculating about the problem.  Borrowing from the worlds of behavioral science and clinical research, we designed test and control groups. In our first experiment, the control group were nominees from internal leadership teams and our test group were colleagues who self-nominated after being exposed to a promotional campaign that included a description of the champion role and expectations. More than a year later, we discovered that the retention rate had increased with the test group, but the level of ability (measured through internally validated performance scores) slightly declined. So this was only a partial success.

This led us to a second round of experiments. In our second round we wanted to learn if we could both increase retention rates AND performance scores for champions. We used self-nominations as the control group this time and compared them to a test group of champions that were identified through a predictive method. Specifically, we surveyed approximately 100 of our highest-rated champions and had them predict future champions based on their own experience, and the profile of a “great champion.” The results this time were astonishing. The next several cohorts of predicted champions scored extremely high in terms of performance scores. But even more importantly, one year later the retention rate was the highest for the predicted champions as compared to the self-nominations as well as leader nominations.

As our recruiting methods evolved, so did our methods for retaining champions. The approach to retaining champions in the network was a mixture of direct and supportive actions that enabled the champion networks to be self-sustaining. To accelerate the engagement of the champion networks, our headquarters-based team developed several supportive programs and tools, without meddling too much in the day-to-day activities of our champions.  Our primary goal was to inform, inspire, and engage the champions. To that end, we introduced a periodic “talk show” format in which we would conduct fast-paced interviews, use game mechanics to share stories, and broadcast on-location with new guests every time. And although we still provided ongoing training and upskilling events, and ran a global rewards and recognition program, a disproportionate amount of the coaching, collaboration, and recognition was driven from within the local networks.  By enabling the local networks to customize things for own their individual ecosystems, there was greater authenticity, and there was local ownership of innovation.

‘Even Decentralized Movements Require Advocacy’

Although the Dare to Try program was endorsed by the executive leadership team, it eventually became a decentralized movement. That said, even decentralized movements require advocacy. In the early days, advocacy was built by showing — not telling — people about the benefits of innovation. In order to create that immersive experience for many of the senior leaders, we ran mini-sprint sessions that were 60 to 90 minutes in length and combined a mixture of inspiration and hands-on application. These fast-paced, high0-involvement sessions won over many senior leaders who were initially ambivalent about yet “another corporate program.”  And we were able to enroll these leaders as supporters to help clear the way of the major obstacles for running workshops and scaling the network of Dare to Try Champions. As the program progressed, we began to see several senior leaders request to be trained as champions themselves, so they too could practice and model the capabilities within their teams.

Three years post-launch, the impact of Dare to Try came into clear focus. Traditional performance metrics were tracked alongside attitudinal and cultural measures. Performance data showed a steady increase in both the number of innovation sessions and, more importantly, outputs that tied into team’s strategic plans and ultimately increased revenue and cost savings. An attitudinal shift showed up in the data as well. An ongoing innovation index survey we conducted reflected a cultural transformation, with marked increases on both organizational ability to innovate as well as individual ability to act in more innovative ways.  The customer-designed survey explored leadership, mindset and behaviors, environment, and impact. And it provided a basis for comparison across business units and also time. This became an important tool to discuss with senior leaders how their department or team’s performance on innovation metrics was progressing (or not) over time, and in comparison with their leadership peers.

The Organizational Impact

But perhaps most telling were the unquantifiable fingerprints left all around the organization. Emails and thank you notes regularly were sent to champions in the informal networks. Employees proudly emblazoned Dare to Try stickers on laptops and office doors. People were acting more entrepreneurially, and in one case, the shift in culture enabled a couple of employees to spin out a novel healthcare startup, known as Springworks Therapeutics. Even leaders routinely inserted “Daring to Try” as a new action-verb in their communications, including in the Pfizer annual report.

After six years, the program has evolved into an iconic brand and a movement at the company. But all movements inevitably face an existential question, which is “can you continue to thrive in a decentralized system?” With leadership changes and new enterprise-wide initiatives competing for colleague attention, the question remains as to whether Dare to Try will continue to exist through a completely decentralized structure or will it require continued centralized support, and if so, how much. After more than five years of designing and leading this grand experiment, I am participating in the last phase.  As I leave Pfizer, to become the founder of an innovation consulting firm (The Deliberate Innovator), the Dare to Try movement will face its most important test. Can Dare to Try remain a thriving culture, network, and capability as a truly decentralized initiative? Time will tell.

Culture change in any organization is not easy. It takes time. It takes vision. It requires clear and measurable goals to track your progress.

And because culture is fundamentally about human beings, we need to expect variability and inconsistency. What works with one team of people may not work with another.  Therefore, if you want to create real and lasting innovation in your organization, you need both a deliberate approach to change, as well as a willingness to adapt your approach and pivot when necessary. By cultivating networks that are simultaneously directed, yet informal, you can harness the collective enthusiasm of your employees while still delivering tangible results — and a notably different culture — in a global organization.

Daniel Seewald is a Contributing Columnist and
Senior Director of Worldwide Innovation at Pfizer

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