What is GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) — the seventh largest pharmaceutical company in the world — doing to become even more innovative? Just ask John Baldoni, SVP platform technology and science (PTS) within GSK R&D. Baldoni is the creator of The Seekers — an idea generation team developed to stimulate disruptive innovation and serve as a catalyst for not only creating tipping points, but creating them sooner.
A tipping point is a term coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book of the same name. It signals a key moment of crystallization that unifies isolated events into a significant trend. It can be used to explain a range of phenomena, e.g. the rise in popularity of seemingly innocuous products to the origins and spread of most major epidemics. Tipping points just don’t happen by accident. They usually have a basis in being able to be traced back to a small group of individuals who can be classified as “Connectors.” Baldoni and the Seekers explained to me the impetus for the Seeker program, how they structured it, and what they learned — including some interesting pitfalls — in their search for innovation.
Epiphany Leads To Program Creation
Inspiration often comes at times and from areas we least expect. This was certainly the case for Baldoni when he came up with the idea for the Seekers. Baldoni, trained in enzyme chemistry, was visiting his son who lived near a university. He decided to stroll through the school’s science building early one morning. As he walked the hallways, looking at the posters and papers being published, he noticed some very fascinating work. He also observed that there seemed to be a disconnect in that much of the work was from individual labs. He began to wonder why the researcher of one poster hadn’t connected with the researcher of another, located just a few offices down the hall, as they seemed to have potential synergy. As he reached the end, Baldoni thought to himself about how this group of brilliant chemistry professors, located in the same building, were apparently failing to see the potential transformational type of step-change possible on those walls. “That trip was the epiphany for me,” he states. “Here is a group of very smart, successful academics who don’t seem to connect. This must be happening in many places, including my organization.”
Back at his open-plan office, a space he shares with about 20 other people, Baldoni pondered the process of innovation, the means by which it naturally evolves and how it could be stimulated. He began to reflect by classifying innovation into three buckets: continuous, evolutionary, and disruptive — all important and necessary. For example, continuous innovation is something that should be taking place all the time, i.e. as people gain more knowledge and experience in their jobs, they naturally develop means of improving efficiency. Evolutionary innovation is a process whereby people realize that there are other better ways of doing things, and through experimentation and asking questions, they make a conscientious effort to change. Disruptive innovation is revolutionary. It can completely change the way something is done, eliminate a need, answer a heretofore unanswerable question, eliminate required infrastructure, and produce dramatic result with a variety of business benefits. If you have ever reflected on the process by which a project evolved from conception, implementation, and course correction all the way through its completion, you have probably thought of things you would do or approach differently. Perhaps, there exists an evolutionary point of divergence, a tipping point that could accelerate the project, possibly taking it in a totally different direction. “Knowing what I know today, what would I do differently?” Baldoni asks. For him, the answer was the realization of the important role people and culture play in the innovative process and how they could be intentionally changed to find or create a tipping point sooner. Baldoni believes many good companies, given a positive trajectory, will usually continue to evolve in a positive direction with little or no intervention taken from the latest scientific breakthroughs. “I decided I was not going to let innovation evolve in only that way,” he affirms. “I decided to create my own tipping point, a different way of thinking about disruptive innovation.” He envisioned a process where instead of innovation naturally occurring in 10 to 15 years, it would do so in less than 5. The challenge was to create a culture of disruptive innovation without altering his department’s necessary, and equally important, emphasis on continuous and evolutionary innovation. The solution — The Seekers — a team of individuals selected to go out into the world, seek ideas, and bring them back to GSK for evaluation.
Innovative Approach To Innovation Team
As Baldoni began to formulate the Seeker program, he was given a variety of suggestions on how to operationalize it — Lean Six Sigma, develop an organization structure, put an idea engine on the Web, etc. “As I was being given suggestions, I was struck by how many people desired to do things better, and yet, these same people were unwilling to let go and stop doing something else that in time may no longer be necessary.” During a leadership meeting, Baldoni stated it this way, “We don’t want to become really good at doing something that is not going to be needed in five years. We want to become really good at doing something that might not be doable now, but our judgment is that it is going to be important in five years.” Considering all of the suggestions on how to structure the Seekers, he did the opposite, electing to set up the program in a very unstructured way. With the counsel of a colleague from the HR department, Cynthia Orme, he decided to use an emergence process for the Seeker program — meaning, the job description they developed and the organization structure was not overly defined for the Seeker position. “We defined it enough to pique interest and posted it to fill the position,” he attests. This lack of definition was deliberate because Baldoni was seeking to find people who were naturally curious and willing to take risks. About eight people were intrigued enough to show up for an interview, and each person had different expectations. During the interview, Baldoni asked, If you had a blank sheet of paper and were in charge of creating a tipping point or a catalytic event in a department such as ours, what would you do? “Three really hit the nail on the head, and those are the three we picked — Magalie Rocheville, Graham Simpson, and Lee Shorter.”
Once selected, Baldoni provided them with the following direction — don’t go where everybody else goes. Talk to people who aren’t necessarily in the pharmaceutical industry. Talk to people who are early in their careers, so they don’t have built-in biases as to how things get done. Go to people who are late in their careers who have a track record of reinventing themselves in different areas. Baldoni advised the Seekers to start by visiting the chemistry department he first walked through to see if they made the same connections he did. In addition, he asked them to research a class of materials that have not yet been used in the drug discovery or development process. One question the Seekers would ask was how they would know if they had found something of value. Baldoni’s answer, “You will know it when you see it. If you say ’Wow’, that is when we start getting interested.”
Baldoni gave a lot of freedom to the Seekers to set up their own team in a self-directed and empowering way, helping to favor creativity and ingenuity. “A process for something like this automatically constrains what you want to get out of it,” he attests. With that in mind, he asked the Seekers to create an advisory board consisting of one external person and four internal employees of GSK who review what the Seekers are doing and give them advice. “It’s an advisory board, not a decision board,” he clarifies. During the first board meeting, he explained to the group, “If you don’t see the Seekers doing what you would do, that is okay. Your role is only to provide advice.” Along with the advisory board, he implemented a vetting process for ideas, which involved the Seekers pitching ideas to him and then discussing if additional research was necessary. If the idea was interesting and worthy of pursuit, depending upon the cost of testing, Baldoni could elect to pursue and manage it out of his budget. If an idea would involve a significant investment beyond Baldoni’s budget and still seemed worthy of additional consideration, they would then present it to the GSK Technology Investment Board. If approved, a team would be assembled to work out the plan as to whether to manage the process externally or internally and create milestones and associated payments. As the Seeker program evolved through the process of emergence, Baldoni discovered early some pitfalls to avoid.
Learnings, Pitfalls, And Mistakes To Avoid
One of the Seekers’ favorite things to do is Friday afternoon “What If” sessions, where the team contemplates different ways of approaching a project. For example, what if you couldn’t use water to do quantitative sample analysis? Or, could you select a lead series of drug candidates without knowing the structures in the lead series? Or, can you imagine other formulations to therapeutics other than tablets? This was one of Baldoni’s early learnings when developing the Seeker program. “During brainstorms, make sure you bring in people who don’t have a preconceived notion of how it should end up,” he advises. Other advice to creating your own Seeker program: Make sure people are comfortable with an emergent style of learning and implementation. Spend time up front defining the kind of individuals you want. Build the team with a diversity in background, personality, and preferences. “Go with your gut in this instance,” he contends. “Put your handheld mirror away so you aren’t finding people like yourself. Look for people who are different, but can work together in harmony. Trust them.” Finally, Baldoni ensured that the Seekers had the support of senior management, including Moncef Slaoui, then chairman of GSK Pharma R&D, and Patrick Valance, now president of GSK Pharma R&D. “The entire R&D senior leadership team supports innovative and transformative ways of working,” he affirms. Slaoui met with the Seekers and expressed his enthusiasm for the program, encouraging them to seek things that would transform how GSK translates its work to patient benefit.
Baldoni suggests finding Seekers who are enthusiastic about future possibilities and lateral thinkers who are extremely curious, nearly to a fault. Finally, keep in mind that Seekers seek, while implementers implement. The role of the Seeker is to gather ideas and, with the help of the advisory board and Baldoni, assess their viability. Once that has been determined, the company then places the idea in the hands of implementers — people who are excellent at project management. Baldoni sees these as two distinct tasks not to be mixed.
Baldoni cautions that you shouldn’t think that a process is transformational and disruptive just because it made something go faster or cheaper. It may still be beneficial, but if it doesn’t redefine the paradigm of an operation, it is not a disruptive innovation. Another potential pitfall is the possibility of a Seeker getting caught up in strategizing how to implement the idea. Some of the ideas brought back by the Seekers will naturally have a very low likelihood of being implemented but are meant to spark other ideas. Baldoni says to be certain to ensure that everyone involved in the process is aligned with regard to the risks associated with the implementation or commercialization of the idea, another potential pitfall. “People can talk themselves out of even trying to implement something simply because it is not in the time frame in which they think a return on investment is needed,” he states. Another pitfall is focusing on the financials before actually understanding the scope of the opportunity or tying a technology to a specific compound, which could then die if the compound does not succeed.
The initial Seeker program began as a pilot in June of 2011 at an estimated cost of around $1.5 million, with the majority of costs being Seeker travel, salary, and any type of Phase 0 testing to see if an idea was feasible. Baldoni is already seeing some benefit from the approach. One of the original Seekers, Graham Simpson, found a technology that he felt could redefine the characterization of protein-protein interactions. He was so convinced of the merit of the approach that he authored a proposal to investigate it further, which was accepted by GSK’s Discovery Investment Board. Simpson is now leading a small team to test his hypothesis. If successful, the Seeker, now turned investigator, may end up as an implementer, applying the technology in PTS. Baldoni is optimistic about a number of other Seeker tipping points, including infinitely adjustable chemical scaffolds to explore metastable protein conformations, integration of a number of unconnected technologies, and the application of emerging science in the petrochemical industry to pharmaceutical process chemistry. Based on its initial success, the program is going through the process of being adopted as an ongoing venture with the creation of the implementer component. In addition, a group has been carved out of Baldoni’s organization to be an incubator of ideas, not just from the Seekers but from across his department.
Baldoni admits he made some mistakes, though, during the creation of the program. He regrets not having spent time informing the leadership team about the Seekers during start-up. Also, he confides, “I think the Seekers would agree that I did not spend enough good quality time with them early on. Luckily though, I didn’t make the mistake of imparting my prejudice onto them as to what I thought they should do.” The Seekers have identified over 30 fresh ideas spanning the continuum of drug discovery and development, performed more detailed investigations and due diligence on eight areas, and advanced four opportunities that have the potential of being transformational to business development colleagues, as well as internal or external funding bodies. Perhaps one or more of these ideas will lead to the next big medical breakthrough at GSK.
Who Are The Seekers?
Magalie Rocheville and Lee Shorter, Disruptive Innovation Seekers, are two people selected by John Baldoni to develop GSK’s Platform Technology and Science (PTS) Seeker program. Rocheville, based in the United Kingdom, has been with GSK for over 10 years with experience in leading several innovation opportunities as well as drug discovery programs for PTS. She has a Ph.D. in pharmacology and belonged to the department of Assay Development within PTS. Shorter, a 26-year GSK veteran based in the United States, has a Ph.D. in chemistry and experience in pharma and consumer healthcare product development, as well as open innovation. The diversity of their backgrounds is part of the beauty of the Seeker program. Rocheville comes from the early drug discovery phase and a biology perspective, while Shorter comes from late phase product development, bringing a chemistry perspective. Combined, they span the continuum of line functions that make up PTS, which allows them to ask each other the naïve questions and thus brainstorm an idea from an open-minded point-of-view. Both admit that taking the position of Seeker has been exciting, fun, and thus far “a dream job.”
According to Shorter, becoming a Seeker seemed a natural career progression. For Rocheville, the attraction was not only the freedom of being able to investigate problems beyond her distinctive function within GSK, but an extension of her appointment to the PTS technical innovation work stream from the previous year.
According to the Seekers, the process of getting the position was tough. “They were looking for people with an open mindset, who were extremely curious, driven, and having the ability to see and make links beyond what others might be able to do,” explains Rocheville. These attributes were assessed during a number of interviews and brainstorming sessions with members of HR and Baldoni. Meanwhile, in the back of their minds, the Seekers were cognizant of the risks involved in taking the position. “The risk for us,” explains Shorter, “was that we were going into an unknown, moving outside existing silos, and not necessarily knowing the future of the position within the organization.” The initial Seekers were selected based on their ability to think and act differently. For example, according to Rocheville, the objective of a Seeker is not to go out and look for technology. “We look at problems and try to find the ‘right’ questions to ask ourselves,” she explains. “During the process, we aren’t just challenging ourselves, but challenging others to have the willingness to change.” The Seekers find that the conversations start easily when they visit people. It starts with the business card and their job title, Disruptive Seeker, which they say usually elicits questions, enthusiasm, and curiosity.