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Why the best ideas can come from outside the business

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By Julian Birkinshaw 

It is a well-known truth that the more successful a firm is, the more blinkered its employees tend to be. Existing activities, capabilities and customer relationships drive behaviour and things that are peripheral to its trajectory get filtered out.

So if you work in an established, successful firm, how do you expand your horizons? Where do you look and who do you talk to if you want to access ideas that lie outside your existing areas of strength? If you ask anyone already linked to your firm, they may be as tainted and blinkered as you are. And there is always a risk they just tell you what they think you want to hear – or that you only hear the parts of the story that affirm your prior beliefs.

This was the challenge that a team of Roche executives (including Sven Ebert, Chad Brown, Tracy Bush, Greg Essert, Oliver Froescheis, and Feng Wang) was facing in May 2014. “We wanted to help Roche avoid the failure of success syndrome; we wanted to gain access to the next big ideas, not the ones we are currently working on,” says the company’s Sven Ebert.

They formulated the following question: Are we missing out on the disruptive or unconventional ideas – the true game changers – that will let us reach our purpose? And they hit upon a novel way to answer it. Ebert says: “We had the bright idea to ask the next generation – the current graduate students, people untainted by our company and its biases – that would hopefully have a fresh point of view.”

Their initial thinking was to conduct some sort of student survey. “We wanted to find really young scientists who are not influenced by a corporate mindset and who have a really open mind regarding any game changes that can occur in a 10–20 year timeframe,” Ebert says. The hypothesis was that by sourcing ideas from these emerging scientists, the team would identify promising opportunities for Roche that were incremental to those identified using the established scouting process.

Finding the right people to ask

So far so good. But the team realised it wouldn’t be easy to find these students – it would take too long to go through their own networks. What’s more, there was a risk that everyone in their networks was already under Roche’s influence.

The first solution was to send a survey to a group of MBA students from London Business School. But it flopped. “We got so few responses, just two or three answers, it was nothing,” Ebert says. “It was an important learning point actually because then we knew we had to do something different in order to really have a broad global reach.”

One of the team suggested using a third party, Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR), a company Roche had worked with before. OBR was a corporate university networking organisation, and it turned out to be the perfect partner. “We already had some projects going on with OBR. One colleague said, “OBR has some experience with students, they bring industry and students together and they might be able to help you,” Ebert says.

A challenge was issued to OBR’s network of thousands of students around the world. The challenge was to submit a ground-breaking innovation idea which they had to present Roche in Basel with the opportunity to win the prestigious £5,000 Game Changing Innovation prize. OBR promised good visibility; for example, it found its way onto the homepage of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) pharmacy department, where the graduate students couldn’t miss it.

Once the students clicked through, they answered specific questions about the biggest healthcare need in 10 to 20 years, the problems identified or opportunities they wanted to address and how their proposed innovation would look like and how it would improve human health. “We devised these questions to help the thinking process,” Ebert says. “We set the ground first and then got to a specific innovation and then how it might be realised.”

After the failure of their first attempt, they faced a nerve-wracking wait to see if their second test, which was launched during the summer, attracted any worthwhile responses. “After four weeks we only had about 15 replies, but then as the deadline loomed the answers came rolling in,” Ebert says. “By 12 September we had 138 responses.” In total, OBR had sent out 7,856 emails and contacted 93 universities in 28 countries. Most respondents were from Europe, with some from North America and the rest from other parts of the world.

So the first goal – tapping into a body of students who didn’t know Roche – had been achieved. And the team was pleasantly surprised with the feedback received from the universities that participated. “I think Roche deserves credit for a fresh perspective, and for giving young people an opportunity to throw in some creative and daring ideas,” said one respondent.

The team conducted some initial analysis on the responses just by reading through them. By their reckoning, 48% of the submissions were outside Roche’s existing areas of focus. Major categories of submissions included continuous monitoring, big data, drug delivery and health apps.

Evaluating the submissions

The Roche team members each evaluated all 138 submissions using five criteria developed in consultation with internal technology assessment experts (asking how novel or useful the responses were). Then they met up for a day to discuss the top 18, eventually coming up with three finalists. One key criterion was that the idea had to be genuinely new. “One submission from an MIT student turned out to be him working as a part-time marketing director for a start–up. It was a great idea, but he was already commercialising it.”

The three finalists – one each from the UK, Slovenia and California – were invited to Basel to present to an internal panel of Roche experts. “To be honest we were unsure if they would give good presentations or not. Our concerns were unwarranted — all three presenters performed very well,” recalls Ebert.  The winner was Jahir Gutierrez from California, for 3D bioprinted smart red blood cells. “It was a pretty unusual idea, and that’s basically why it won,” Ebert says.

The UK finalist was working on detecting Alzheimer’s at an early stage, using classic mobile phone games to see how reactions and certain brain parameters change over time. The Slovenian finalist proposed a new way to give medicine to the body via a skin patch. The Roche team was clear throughout the process that only non-confidential information should be presented, to avoid any IP problems.

Learnings and follow-up

So what was the outcome of this experiment? The internal Roche panel was extremely positive: “I am convinced we need to get outside in order to overcome our focus on doing what we need today. We need more engagement. We must operationalise this,” said one member.

From the team’s point of view, there were several linked findings. First, the study opened people’s eyes to ideas — some very specific ones, but more importantly to entire categories of things that are growing. Ebert explains: “Health apps or websites are one of the major drivers for our young people in the future, and not really rated at the right priority. And 3D printing is more important than we probably think at the moment. These emerging categories are really important.”

There were other benefits, too. One was good PR with universities that liked the initiative. It was also a massive talent scouting opportunity. The top 18 participants were approached by Roche HR people in their respective countries, leading to several job offers.

There are plans to repeat the experiment in the coming years, to keep the fresh ideas rolling in and to prevent Roche scientists from becoming too inwardly-focused. “In the end, who knows how Roche’s business model will look 20 years from now?” says Ebert. “At the moment, we think personalised medicine is going to be huge, but what happens if the rules really change fundamentally somehow?  We need to make sure our early-warning system is working well, to make sure we stay relevant.”


Julian Birkinshaw is a Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School.

This article was originally published on London Business School

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