Almost every organization of any size says innovation is important, but many struggle to apply new ideas successfully.

Wendy Mayer, vice president for worldwide innovation at Pfizer, was a panelist on Wednesday during MedCityNews' two-day "Converge: Summit for Healthcare Innovation," at the Hyatt at The Bellevue in Center City.

Pfizer is world's top seller of brand-name prescription medicine and some of its 85,000 employees work in Collegeville, Montgomery County.

Like other drugmakers, Pfizer is searching for new medicine, but also new ways to make its business more efficient and profitable.

Mayer was one of five people who addressed the question of "How Can You Innovate in a Big Shop?"

Naomi Fried, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital, moderated the discussion in the ballroom of the hotel and she offered each panelist chance to answer her questions. The panelist also fielded questions from the audience. The other panelists were Jennifer Draklellis, senior director of innovation at UnitedHealthcare; Peter Margolis, professor of pediatrics and director of research at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center; and Paul Puopolo, vice president of business innovation at Highmark, Inc., in Pittsburgh.

Mayer has two degrees, including an MBA, from Cornell University. After a yearlong fellowship at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and almost two years with Deloitte, she joined Pfizer in 1997 in its market analytics department.

This condensed and edited Q&A combines Mayer's comments from the panel discussion and an interview with the Inquirer afterward. A shorter version appeared in Friday's print edition of the Inquirer.

Links to video of the panel and Mayer from the summit are here and here.

Question: Why is your organization interested in innovation?

Mayer: Innovation with regard to developing new drugs has always been a core part of the success of our business. What's newer for our organization is a focus on innovation beyond drug development. How do we innovate our business model? How do we innovate our business partnerships and how do we look to operate the company in a different way. What's driving that is the market is changing. The government is changing. The financing of healthcare is changing. Customer engagement is changing. You can cut back, but we often say that you need to do more with less, or do less with less, but either way, you have less. But you can only do that so far and we've come to the realization that we need to do things differently.

We need to find things that enable us to be as effective, or more effective, with less, so there is a pretty big commitment internally to finding new ways to do that. There is a lot of emphasis on business model innovation and ways to change the company. We're still focused on drug development and that's the core of the business, but we've opened the aperture to where we see the importance of innovation for our organization and made it much broader than it's traditionally been.

Q: How many are in your group?

Mayer: We are a corporate function, so we sit above the business units and report directly to our executive leadership team. We are small and mighty. There are five of us. We extend the capabilities of our team through what I thought was an innovative approach of bringing fellows on board. People from across the company will join our team for six or nine months. It is a way to get very inexpensive additional resources for our team. More importantly, it extends the diversity of our our team because we're able to get people from very different parts of the organization and bring the perspective of what happens in manufacturing or research-and-development or a different therapeutic area. We're focused as a small team, but we have responsibility across 85,000 people and a $60 billion business.

"We see ourselves as an accelerator of innovation across Pfizer. There are parts of the company that have their own innovation teams, such as manufacturing. The consumer business has a team. We try to connect the dots across and develop different platforms that address all of the work that different teams are doing.

"One big focus is to build a capability within the business to help everyone across Pfizer to think more expansively and be more innovative in their approach to their everyday work and the problems they see within their business unit. We have a framework we've developed and we try to share some of the best practices. We've developed a coaches network that helps support and incent people working across our business and drive innovative thinking at a grass roots level. We also can be the extender to external opportunities that are happening outside the business. The bulk of our people are focused on their core business deliverables, what they have to deliver for the next quarter, what they have to do to deliver numbers this year. They don't have an opportunity beyond what is directly relevant to them, to reach out in forums such as this or reach out to the start up community and understand what is happening more broadly that would have an impact on the business. We try to make the connection back to the business or identify ways we can capitalize on the thinking that is happening in those incubators. How can we bring that back?

Some of the things that were incubated within the innovations team was a real-world analytics team that was established to better capitalize on real world data to supplement clinical trial data that we have on products. We developed an integrated health business unit, which is a very different business model, which tries to address what are the health and wellness aspects of many of the disease states that we have products in.

Q: It's been said that culture eats strategy for lunch and this can apply to innovation. You need to build a culture that supports and embraces innovation. What are you doing to build a culture of innovation?

Mayer: We do a big conference each year, a two-day event where we put a lot of focus on what is happening outside our organization and bring in external speakers to educate and get people excited about potential and opportunities. We have an awards program. Every quarter we recognize five key innovations or projects that represent innovative behaviors across the organization. It is a recognition by the senior leadership team. Then at our conference, we do sort of an Oscars, where we take all the winners through the year and recognize the projects that are really emblematic of what we're trying to deliver through innovation. There was a comment earlier about the importance of recognition and making people feel they are being recognized for their efforts, whether the idea is ultimately successful from a business standpoint or represents a successful failure and being able to learn from that experience. One thing we really struggle with - and culture is one of the biggest - is driving innovation further within our organization. We always talk about the hypocrisy that on the clinical side of our business, the culture around innovation is so strong because it is so much a core to that organization being successful. The idea of it being OK to fail is so much a core of research and development, yet it is not so accepted from the commercial aspect of our business. We're trying to see how to better capitalize, in a way learn from ourselves, to see some of the elements that drive the culture in that part of the organization [clinical] and carry it over to other parts of the organization.

Q: How do you measure the impact of your program in a large organization where leadership is very interested in knowing if they are getting value?

Mayer: We have a number of metrics that are activity based, ways we are pushing innovation or innovative thinking out to our organization. We measure the number of people across our organization that we've exposed to our innovation framework. We try to keep track of the ideas that result from being exposed to that framework, to demonstrate the value of doing that. We talk about the number of ideas we get coming in for nominations for the awards we do, the number of connections we can make through external exposure through the organization, to demonstrate how we're bringing in more innovative ideas."

Q: If you were joining an organization and starting an innovation group, what are the first, second and third things you would do?

Mayer: Find a way to identify quick wins, so you can demonstrate value to the organization. Depending on the organization, there can be skepticism about what the value is or how you're driving value differently than other activities in the organization. Closely related to that is be very clear in communicating about your specific objectives. In our organization, there are a number of people working on innovation-type projects, so be very clear what you're focusing on. Scope that out so you're not, either duplicating efforts or having people feel you're coming into their territory. It will be easier to be more productive if you negotiate that space for yourself."

Q: Can you explain more about the fellows program.

Mayer: We've usually done it with a class of three people in each six-month period. This time we're doing four, sort of a pilot, an experiment of having somebody in Europe that doesn't sit in our office in New York headquarters. It is a little more challenging. The reason we've kept it at three is that we think it is really important for them to have a meaningful experience. Their home organization is sponsoring them to come and work for our team and there is value in them bringing that experience back to their team. We want to make sure they work on a meaningful project and that they can accomplish most, if not all of that in the sixth-month time period. It requires close management, so we don't want to overextend ourselves.

Q: How do you get buy-in?

Mayer: The job is posted on the regular site that has jobs people can move to across the company. But we're very clear in the posting that it is what we call internally, a secondment. That means they need to be paid by their home organization and it requires manager approval before we'll even interview them. They have to talk to their manager and say, "Would you support me going for six months to that other team?" Ideally, it would be full-time for the six-month period, but in some cases we've negotiated 60 or 70 percent of their time, so they are still connected with their home base and can continue with projects they are working on.

Q: Do they take a project back with them?

Mayer: They would not necessarily take a project back with them. More often it's the experience and the way to think differently about what is happening with their own projects and departments. We're very deep into innovation training and we give them a lot of tools that will help them build on ideas, collaborate with others and be more playful in their thinking, be brave. So, hopefully, when they go back to their home organization, they will say to themselves, "Have I clearly identified the problem I'm working on? Am I understanding what the underlying issues are? How can I add more playfulness to this so I can bring out more creative ideas?" We have this whole concept that most of the innovative ideas come through related worlds. Part of what we believe stifles innovation in the routine course of things is that we're building all of our ideas off our regular experience base and the way to get ideas is to look outside and find analogous solutions elsewhere and try to re-purpose them back to your situation. We hope they take that perspective back to the teams they work with.

Q: Are there groups within Pfizer more receptive to new ideas?

Mayer: It is culture dependent. There are parts of our organization that are more culturally expansive, more willing to accept new ways of things, but no, not really. It can be very person dependent. It can depend on the leader and the tone the leader sets. The fact that the leader is encouraging to them to participate in the fellows program to begin with is usually a good sign they are willing to accept new ideas and hope the employee comes back with new approaches and ways of looking at problems.

Q: Beyond that, can you explain the benefit to the managers?

Mayer: A lot of managers look at this as great way to develop talent on their team. It demonstrates a commitment to the employee on the team. They are letting them take an opportunity to expand their skill set and experiment. It is broadening their capabilities. Most of the people doing the fellows program are not innovation consultants by trade. I have someone on my team now who does vaccines research. He happens to have a passion for innovation and is very curious, which is always a good quality to have, both for research and innovation. But the value going back to his group is that he is getting more formal experience in areas that, to now, was more a pet interest. It helps build his capabilities. Hopefully, he'll be able to transfer some of that to members of his team. But for a manager trying to demonstrate that that they are building capability of members of their team, that is really good. For managers, part of their role is to develop their teams, so those team members can be better employees for Pfizer overall, not just within that one function.

Q: Plenty of innovative ideas die because they can't be expanded to the scale that a large company such as Pfizer needs. Do you have an example of how the innovations team helped address a question of whether an idea can be taken to the necessary scale?

Mayer: Part of reason we sometimes struggle from a start-up standpoint is that a lot of them have great ideas and I'll make the connection to somebody internally at Pfizer, but that person will say, "I'm running a $2 billion business and I need to reach X million people or X thousand providers," and a lot of these companies are not at that stage of maturity. We're trying to change their perspective.

The experimentation piece is a critical component. It's not just taking something at a micro level and saying, "Well, now extend it to X-thousand more people." It's thinking from the beginning about what it would take for that project to be successful at scale, aggregate into it the risks that would prevent it from being successful at scale. Test those components at a smaller scale, so you're already thinking big picture from the beginning and risks from the beginning, rather than just saying, "How can I do this with a population this size?"

One example we had was there was a product and a question of the best way to promote it. It was not a very big product. There was a question of whether we should bring back sales reps because it wasn't being promoted with sales reps. The team did an experiment to look at different ways of communicating about the product. They did one arm with sales reps, one with sales reps and online promotion and one with just online, looking at different models of promoting it. But even with the sales rep part of the experiment, you couldn't use the traditional model because that is too expensive for a small product. In setting up the experiment with the sales rep piece, you do it in a way that, if you found out it was right, you could do it across the country. Realistically, you're not going to have a field force of 2000 people. You might have 20, so you set up the experiment so it would be analogous to what we would do if we rolled it out nationally. It can't be one rep to call on 50 doctors in a 10-mile radius because that's not realistic when you only have 20 reps nationally."