Why starting an innovation journey isn’t sexy

Chugai Pharmaceutical’s UK innovation lead, Martin Ellgood explores the challenges pharma companies face when devising innovation strategies.

On a hot July morning, our managing director called me aside for a “quick word”. Five minutes later I emerged smugly with a new job title: UK innovation lead. I got ready to update my LinkedIn profile.

I must confess that in that moment, the image of a golden chalice was floating in my mind. This was going to be a piece of cake. I pictured myself cordoning off part of the office, buying hundreds of beanbags, installing smartboards, and a room full of 3D printers whirring away.

This was my first mistake.

It is incredibly easy to create ‘Innovation Theatre’. I’ve realised that fostering true innovation is hard and less sexy than it first seems. It is an arduous journey – but it is worth it, if you’re up for the challenge.

I work at Chugai: an organisation that perhaps few have heard of outside of Asia. We have a large footprint in Japan, and as part of the Roche Group, we have a great tradition of bringing innovative medicines to market in Europe. In 2017/18 lots of talk began filtering down to Europe about the need to become an organisation that embraced a new mantra: Innovation Beyond Imagination.

For me, Innovation Beyond Imagination is about knowing that if you reach for the stars and try and create something new, you will have the support of the organisation behind you. It is a marvellous cause – but what it does not provide you with is any kind of blueprint to inspire that innovative thinking in the first place.

“There’s a popular Chinese proverb that says: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

As it transpires, Chugai is not unique on this journey to find innovative methods. Pharma is queuing up to ‘co-create value’, provide ‘beyond the pill solutions’ and work in partnership with others. These changes represent a paradigm shift in the model of pharmaceutical business. They require businesses to realise that traditional sales is rapidly becoming the stuff of dinosaurs. COVID-19 has only accelerated this change, as quickly as it has closed some of our favourite high street brands.

Starting out, one of my biggest fears was how to keep pace with the Pparma ‘Big Boys’ with so much work to do. But I soon realised that was an excuse. Netflix would never have taken on Blockbuster and Sky with that mentality. In many ways our small size and agility was our strength. All that was needed was a quick reality check for us… what was our innovation baseline?

Starting a journey towards innovation

To find our baseline, we conducted a Value Chain Analysis of Chugai Pharma UK. To be frank, we were “somewhat lacking” in innovation. More positively what we lacked, we made up for in desire.

There were lots of reasons for our score. Our organisation was very traditionally structured. While our European team was incredibly diverse, we were not tapping into that vast pool of innovative energy as much as we could.

Culturally we needed to shift, and this is where (depending on your mood of the day) creating a naturally curious, innovative culture represented an exciting challenge  or a severe migraine. I pored over McKinsey’s “3 Horizons Model of Innovation” to search for an answer. It sets some gloomy timelines for transitioning any organisation into one that is able to realise truly disruptive innovations and solutions.

However, there’s a popular Chinese proverb that says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

Step 1: Find your Firestarters

We needed to untap our creativity, and the first step was to look for it through our people. This is where every organisation will differ in its approach. With hindsight, my energy was best spent on finding early adopters of change. I call them Firestarters. They carry the torch for innovation in the organisation. They are the kind of people that would queue all night to get the next iPhone even though they could saunter in the following week to pick one up without the hassle.

We have chosen to formalise these Firestarters by creating a group of Innovation Ambassadors as it were. These will be our go-to innovators who can inspire, lead, apply tools techniques and help install the philosophy of being curious, take risks, work iteratively and quickly.

Step 2. Choose the right innovation journey for your organisation

The next step is to decide what kind of innovation journey feels right for the organisation. There are typically two kinds of innovation journeys that pharmaceutical businesses follow:

  1. The first keeps innovation boxed away in an exclusive innovation hub or engine with its own rules and culture. It has the advantage of letting its innovators work independently, in a ‘start-up’ like culture, free of the bureaucracy of the mothership, whilst the rest of the organisation does what they do best.
  2. The second is to engage the whole organisation on a journey towards innovation kicking or screaming.

I believe we have found a happy medium at Chugai. Our team considers innovation not as a culture, but as a key skill, and is experienced in searching for innovative solutions with our partners. Through training programmes, we have upskilled the team in digital technology and the application of ideation techniques. We have also encouraged our Firestarters to enrol in Agile skills programmes. This has not been easy: the programmes are relatively expensive financially speaking, but perhaps even more so in terms of time and resource.

We have also invested some serious time and effort in getting people to understand their ‘Why?’ and how that consolidates with Chugai’s. We have re-shaped our organisational capability framework to reflect high-performing team dynamics and have taken a brave step to apportion some of the incentive scheme to peer-review how well colleagues live these capabilities.

Step 3. Arm yourself with the tools for change

You can spend a lot of time debating the merits of Miro, over Google Jamboard, or Microsoft Teams. It’s up to any organisation to decide their financial, IT and security processes. What is important though, is getting a tool which can help inspire and gather innovations.

When it comes to measuring the success of your innovation journey, it can be tempting to set the dial to measure quantity over quality for incoming ideas. It is far more rewarding to ensure that teams are ideating around clearly defined challenge areas – tight, but not so tight that they stifle innovation. Less can be more.

Step 4. Choose wisely and join a network

Which brings me to the next point – operate in a lean fashion. Pick the innovation with the highest return and maximise the resource you can offer to it. Spreading resource across several projects because they all ‘look great’ dilutes your efforts and prevents you from creating elongated efforts.

During our innovation journey at Chugai we also had a burning realisation: if we were to apply innovation and move at pace, we needed to grow our innovation network rapidly. Again, this was resource-heavy but fun; seeking out and making contacts in ever increasing circles has been great, and we focused on healthcare with AHSN, NHSx, Knowledge Transfer Network, into start-ups, app designers and finally into Google Health and Amazon Web Services.

Having laid its foundations, Chugai’s journey is now progressing at pace. It is very easy to get wrapped up in the theatre that surrounds innovation and transformation. On our journey I have learned that innovation is at its most valuable not when it is some sexy, shiny thing, but when you are taking a cold, hard look under the bonnet and taking your people on a journey. Because, at its heart, if we are to become truly innovative, it is our people that will get us there.

About the author

Martin Ellgood is the head of operations and UK innovation at Chugai Pharma UK. He oversees investment in Key Account Management programmes to drive a solution focus throughout the organisation. As a member of the Executive Committee and the UK innovation lead, he has devised and delivered innovation strategies across the business.