Building, Scaling & “Unbossing” Innovation at Novartis’ Genesis Labs

January 28, 2021

In our recent Master Class on innovation at Novartis’ Genesis Labs, Ian Hunt and Aimee Reynolds share insights on developing an effective innovation ecosystem that ensures that the best ideas bubble up to the top. 

During the call, the pair explore:  

  • How to develop, manage, and scale an innovation program in a large corporation

  • How an innovation management platform can bring together associates across global and organizational boundaries to nurture co-creation and develop game-changing concepts

  • How digital tools can be used to maintain creative momentum while working from home

Hunt is the Head of Novartis Genesis Labs, and Reynolds is the Genesis Labs Project Liaison. Ian Hunt and Aimee Reynolds both help run Genesis Labs at Novartis. Nathan Jacob, the Europe, Middle East and Africa General Manager at Planbox, also provided insight at how the innovation services company operates with the Genesis Labs team. Three themes discussed in the call follow. 

What Does it Mean to ‘Unboss’?

Creating an innovation friendly work environment doesn’t just mean starting a fancy program and calling it a day. At Novartis, a critical first step was “unbossing” the organization, says Hunt. This meant the company committed to: involving everyone instead of a few employees, relying on mechanisms instead of structures, and building purpose rather than profit. More concrete goals included empowering associates to pursue their own ideas and encouraging leaders to remove obstacles and trust their teams. 

At Genesis Labs, that associates are encouraged to pursue personal, skunkworks projects in addition to their day jobs. If their idea is tapped by leaders to be worked on at Genesis Labs, then they are pulled out of the day-to-day of the organization and receive seed funding to engage in their own work for up to 18 months. 

“They’re fully focused, fully dedicated to their idea,” Hunt says. “[If chosen,] we assign a mentor for them. … We try to encourage and nurture teams to come together, self-assemble, and we give them the space to explore and test the idea.”

According to Hunt, leadership has observed that associates have become deeply immersed into projects, that less bureaucracy allowed for nimble contributions to science, and that the self-selection process built notable team cohesion and dedication.

Creating a Visible Program that Gets Employees Excited

Every couple of years, Novartis runs its Request for Application event (RFA) where new teams can present their ideas. Through a review process, a shortlist of the ideas best suited for Genesis Labs is created. The teams on the shortlist attend a skill-building boot camp where they flesh out their ideas and early business plans. They then pitch to senior Novartis executives in front of the entire company. 

While the task is daunting, the visibility it gives the innovation program has resulted in increased participation. During the first RFA, leadership received 90 proposals and about 300 associates participated, and five projects were funded. By the second, about 2,000 associates were participating and 166 idea proposals were received, resulting in the funding of six projects. 

“In almost all the cases of the projects, the tenacity and speed of the team has been remarkably more accelerated than our traditional project teams,” Hunt says. “There’s a variety of reasons for this. They’re fully dedicated — they haven’t got 10 other projects they’re working on. Second is a tenacity and an empowerment on the teams because it’s their idea, which has been terrific to see.”

Using Open Innovation Software to Drive Collaboration

For the third iteration of RFA, Hunt and Reynolds decided to open up the process to even more collaboration by partnering with Planbox and running an open ideation phase prior to the RFA event. For two months, colleagues were able to submit their own ideas, comment on each other’s ideas, and share ideas with people in their networks that may be helpful. The plan was to then have a team review these ideas, invite teams to submit full proposals, and eventually pitch at the Novartis office in Cambridge, Mass. 

But, after the pandemic began in early 2020, deadlines and expectations had to be shifted. Participants got accustomed to collaborating and fleshing ideas out on Microsoft Teams, and a virtual pitch session was hosted instead of an in-person one. 

Using the Planbox software, Hunt and Reynolds were able to track that not only had 160 ideas been submitted on the portal — but 467 helpful comments were left on these ideas. And in total, 3,870 associates from across the globe had interacted with the platform during the course of the third RFA. 

“For a large corporation like Novartis, and a program like Genesis Labs, which ultimately is only really going to be available for a few selected teams, getting almost 4,000 people to log on and view ideas is a significant level of engagement,” Reynolds says.