5 Rules That Drive Innovation

Innovation is the holy grail. No matter your field of endeavor, innovation is invaluable, essential, and desired above all else. And yet, for many, the path to innovation is a little like the search for the grail; long and frustrating, especially when tantalizing glimpses of success, just out of reach, continue to pull us forward. The drive to innovate results in failure far more often than it does success, and while innovation has no set formula and seemingly no way to insure desired outcomes delivered on a predictable schedule, it is absolutely critical to success in all industries.

The need to innovate takes on added urgency in the health sector, where patients are literally waiting for our innovative solutions. Their wellness, even their survival, depends upon them. And yet, innovation is sometimes undercut in corporate settings as it is not always supported by the culture.

Disrupting the Culture of “No”

When confronted with a disruptive idea at most healthcare-industry companies, until recently the natural inclination has been to say “no.” Where there has been no historic support of disruptive innovation, this isn’t a surprise. If there is no experience that reinforces the benefits of taking a risk, it’s easy to find reasons not to do something.

To move away from the culture of “no” towards a mindset that accepts different ways of approaching ideation, we actually need to innovate the process of innovation. A key strategy—one that has delivered effective and ultimately reliable results for us—is to drive both internal and external teams for “sustaining” and “disruptive” health innovation.

What do we mean by this? Like innovation itself, innovators can come from any number of places. If you foster innovation correctly within your organization, your people are able to self-disrupt, working toward set goals, delivering new ideas that work for patients. We call this approach “sustaining innovation,” which is characterized by our internal teams delivering advancements—steadily and reliably—in innovative increments. This approach provides a baseline of success. It’s the fuel that makes a company’s innovation engine run.

But, novel—even unlooked for—ideas will also come from unexpected, external sources, and must be identified and developed to supplement your internal teams’ work. This “disruptive innovation” can be thrilling and take inventive leaps. By working with smaller, nimbler partners—such as startups and academics, we add higher octane to the innovation engine.

Utilizing Innovation’s Dual Nature

This dual nature of innovation—sustaining and disruptive—should be recognized, embraced, and leveraged, ultimately to the advantage of patients. We have found that the following rules have helped create a stronger appetite for risk and new ideas, resulting in tangible benefits for patients and consumers that are cumulatively transforming the future of self-care:

  1. Build your best internal team: Forming an innovation team doesn’t just happen once. It is an ongoing process. Once we had identified our innovation strategy, we aligned existing and desired talent to effectively deliver against our priorities. A key aspect of this approach includes identifying skill-gaps and quickly addressing them, either through adding talent to the team or looking to external collaborations.
  2. Build the right culture: Internally, fostering a culture of curiosity, investment, and risk encourages employees to self-disrupt. If your teams are supported with the right culture and resources, sustaining innovation becomes predictably reliable.
  3. Look outside: There are two compelling reasons to go outside your company—when you have to fill the need for a skill you don’t have, and when you want to explore truly disruptive innovation. While your company’s appetite for risk may be more modest, a startup, individual, or academic innovator has a much higher risk tolerance with a greater potential for benefit.
  4. Set team metrics for innovation: While it seems counterintuitive to set goals and metrics for a process as mercurial as innovation, experience has proved to us that it’s essential to our success. Through careful review and a process of adjusting KPIs and benchmarks, we are able to set aspirational goals for our teams, who consistently meet them—innovating on target and on schedule.
  5. Reward failure: A culture that rewards taking a risk needs also to reward failure—as long as there is real, valuable learning that comes out of it. Learning is the key to a fail-forward approach, with both internal and external teams. Through debriefing, continuous feedback, discussions, and reflections, we find the negativity associated with failure is diffused, allowing us to move more quickly between mistakes. Post-failure learning giving us a platform from which to launch into the next challenge.

A Word on Strategy

While the consensus is that innovation is critical for sustainable organizational success, many innovation leaders feel that their respective companies fall short when it comes to executing on an innovation strategy. This belief is further highlighted despite a +3.2% increase in total R&D spend. While the reason for this belief may be related to the issue of an internal culture that doesn’t fully support innovation success, it may also be a question of executives self-limiting their vision. Corporate leaders’ horizons may be, in some cases, not broad enough to see and incorporate the considerable talent and energy that external partners can bring to the equation.

Taking the cross-team approach requires the willingness to go into new territory without a roadmap. And, it’s true that when teams come together, there can be differences of opinion and conflict. When the two of us first started working together, we had a heated discussion in a meeting. Looking around the table, we saw that our colleagues were aghast. We told them, “this is what’s expected of everyone: Speaking up. Giving everyone the freedom to voice their concerns is what makes us special and more likely to arrive at exciting ideas.” It was an eye opener—people had pre-conceived ideas about how they were supposed to voice ideas and concepts. It takes a lot of courage to come up with ideas, and if you’re in a situation where taking a risk is not tolerated, that may be impossible.

Now, we find that working transparently and with spirited discussion across teams achieves greater results than the old, silo-based approach.

Finding the Winning Combination

In our case, a combination of internal and external teams—entities from outside the company—have become critical to innovation success. When we started the GSK/Novartis joint venture, 95% of the programs we oversaw were wholly internal. We believe we have the best internal teams, the brightest and most inventive, and they have greatly advanced sustaining innovation against our existing brands and categories. But, since that time, our horizons have widened. We have created an external network with incredible access to partners including incubators, startups, academics, and individuals; you cannot survive today without developing and accepting a diversity of ideas and innovators. Now, we’re working in a new innovation era of our own creation, and we are at the point where nearly 50% of our projects are run by external teams.

We have proven results to show now, but it wasn’t easy to make this fundamental change. At the senior management level, our target of 50% external teams seemed a terribly high number. And, when we began, we had to ask: What kind of individuals do we choose for our internal teams? Should we go with traditional scientists? Should we go with people like Rob with extensive VC and finance backgrounds? The two of us went with non-traditional picks in internal and external teams to create a diversity of perspectives and ideas. With innovation coming from within and beyond our corporate walls, there is a richer, more complex series of choices to make. This has become a real competitive differentiator in our mission to transform the future of self-care.

The Self-Care Revolution is Coming

When we think of rapidly evolving self-care, we may think of digital impacts that allow consumers to make better decisions, access meds and treatment, and leverage the use of AI. Everything is building up to a revolution in self-care, with a tremendous amount of innovation coming from teams working towards practical, unmet need.

To meet this need, we have adopted a culture of curiosity—one that supports investment, encourages risk, sets goals, rewards failure, and recognizes value in the work from teams from within and the collaboration with teams from academia and entrepreneurs of all scales and approaches. Ours is an expansive industry, one that keeps its eye on the ultimate prize; people’s lives improved, sustained, and extended. When we approach the innovation that gets us closer to that prize, why would we limit ourselves?

  • Ian Marks

    Ian Marks is R&D Vice President Innovation at GSK Consumer Healthcare. A healthcare leader with more than 20 years’ experience, Ian Marks drives business value and improves customers’ lives by delivering breakthrough innovations, leading disruptive initiatives, cultivating unorthodox partnerships, and building strategic capabilities. Marks integrates consumer insights with superior, science-based research. 

  • Rob Sarrazin

    Rob Sarrazin is Vice President, Global External Innovation and Direct Investments at GSK Consumer Healthcare. Focused on establishing partnerships with world-class organizations, Robert Sarrazin is a healthcare innovation leader with 20 years’ experience in private equity and venture capital. Since joining in 2015, Sarrazin substantially increased GSK’s external innovation pipeline, creating a strong flow of new product launches. 


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