Nights at the Round Table, Cultures of Innovation

As this year’s JP Morgan meeting consumed San Francisco, driving up prices amidst the downpours (let’s agree with the irony of those in the industry complaining about hotel prices priced on value…), IDEA convened a small round table of huge experts in the area of innovation. We headed back to our small group format (typified here in the first Nights At The Round Table), as I have found that depth is the one thing that most panel formats lose… The question I am usually most interested in is the next question…

IDEA Pharma hosts an engaging discussion on the "Cultures of Innovation"

You will be able to see the video soon, but I wanted to pull together a few thoughts. The group, I will selfishly admit, is one with either existing or new heroes in the innovation space: 


  • Mike Rea CEO, IDEA Pharma

  • Linda Avey Co-founder of 23andMe, and Curious, Inc

  • Amrit Chaudhuri CEO, Mass Innovation Labs, LLC

  • Steve Holtzman CEO, Decibel Therapeutics

  • Raj Kannan SVP, Global Franchise Head, Neurology & Immunology, EMD Serono

  • Michael Schrage Research Fellow, MIT Center for Digital Business; Visiting Fellow, Imperial College Department of Innovation and Entrepreneurship

  • Robert Urban Global Head, Johnson & Johnson Innovation

As I hoped, it was an evening without pat, empty answers. One thing I had hoped to achieve was to bring a useful diversity to the discussion, so we mixed some large pharma, biotech, and academic views, plus (with Michael Schrage) a wide-ranging overview across industries. That diversity of opinion was seen as early as the opening question: how do you, or your organisation, define ‘innovation’. I won’t spoil the video for you by trying to summarise what the group thought (or, more importantly, what the individuals thought within that group, as there was not always consensus).

What I will do is to reflect on the importance of this discussion. It may seem like semantics to many, but I believe that we need to be very clear about two things: invention is not the same as innovation, and that innovation is not a job for individuals, but for the organisation.

The first part of that is critical, because for as long as innovation is confused with invention, there will be too much emphasis placed on ‘creativity’ and novelty as behaviours. If innovation is about the process of creating value from inventions, we have an elegant definition, and also a helpful one. That is because the second part, the role of the team or the company in realising value, is often underplayed. The least innovative organisations I see are those who have decided their ‘innovation’ team will be separate and responsible for suddenly making their organisations different. It doesn’t matter how many funky spectacles or mentions of blockchain there are, if that group is only a noise on the side, no change will happen.

The collaboration inherent in moving ideas, or testable hypotheses, towards value is critical. Although our group differed in their view about whether ideas were (or could be) attributed to individuals, we all agreed that organisations are critical to seeing and delivering value, if they are tuned to do so.

One set of answers surprised me: I thought that we would have, by now, moved towards more active management of innovation. Yet its measurement (and by extension, its management?) remains abstract, as if ‘if we do the right things, good things will result.’ While the group reflected on the inherent difficulties of tracking innovation on the timescales we do in pharma, it is important to remember that aviation, energy and other industries operate on similar (or longer) timescales and under even greater scrutiny. So, I wondered, should we worry about this? My view is that we should. And the reason is not that innovation necessarily needs constant watching. It is that it may be the victim of short-termism. If we believe that it pays off in 5-10 (or 20) years, and we have no surrogates for whether what we are doing is working (or we rely on the wrong surrogates), we can always run afoul of new leadership asking how we know what we’re doing is adding value, or whether a different approach might be better… Steve Holtzman gave a great example: if we define an appropriate number of goals per vertical/ department, and add together, we can track performance ‘out of 250’.

That, to me, is also a function of that clarity: we can’t afford to treat innovation like a rare and magical thing, the way we treat creativity. It is a discipline, and all parts of the organisation should know their roles in its realisation.

I am proud of this roundtable, and I know you will enjoy the thrust and parry of the conversation. I am looking forward to many more.