Hello, 2005? Would You Like your Innovation Team Back?

Photo credit: Dave C/Creative Commons

I recently flew back from England (and boy are my arms tired, har har). There, I attended Digital Pharma Europe and really enjoyed meeting new folks, seeing old friends, and exploring the global challenges we all seem to be facing in pharma. But something jumped out at me as I listened to all the provocative presentations from around the world: Although many pharma companies have innovation teams among their ranks, for the life of me I can't figure out why. 

Most innovation teams focus on “digital innovation,” which seems a self-limiting proposition. Why does innovation have to be limited to the digital space? And why are we continuing to segment digital as a separate channel? That's kind of the opposite of “innovative,” if you ask me.

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But here's my biggest gripe: Innovation teams should be driving innovation for their particular business, not just for marketing and communications — it's super sketchy to be innovating for the sole purpose of selling more products. These are just a few examples I know of where innovation teams have gone astray:

1. Holing up in huts in Greenland (I swear) and promising not to come home until they hit upon a big idea, which ended up being a pharma video game.

2. Building complex processes to brainstorm ad nauseam but then whittling down hundreds of fantastic ideas and ending up with another patient video

3. Building apps like they're a Silicon Valley startup, then doggedly selling them to brand teams.

In fact, I'm not familiar with a single innovation team output that has moved a business forward (read: increased product sales). Please correct me if I'm wrong; this is the rare circumstance in which I'd like to be wrong.

Because the vast majority of innovation teams aren't aligned to the business, the whole notion of “innovation” just seems ineffective to me. Who thinks developing solutions and then trying to match them to a strategic imperative is the right approach? Shouldn't it be the opposite?

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Furthermore, why aren't these innovation teams using brand goals and objectives as a starting point to create solutions to support those goals? Wouldn't these innovations be stronger if they had a purpose at the outset? And what's the plan for follow-through? I've seen innovations dropped at the doorway of the brand team with the hope that they will be nurtured and adopted, only to be abandoned by employee turnover, tightened budgets, and the ever-wasteful “NIH (Not Invented Here) Syndrome.”

Let's say an innovation team does come up with a novel solution. Since these teams typically operate in a silo, even if they do get the brand on board no one has allocated appropriate resources to support the program long-term. Often it's an initiative so large that there are no resources left to sustain it beyond launch. The novel channel (or message or approach) becomes an island, one on which no one wants to be marooned. And then it slips away, with no learnings gathered or steps taken although someone will get promoted, you can be assured.

I've worked in this industry for almost 20 years, and I know all too well that we haven't mastered the basics of marketing and communications. Innovation in our products, our relationships with our customers, the structure of our organizations, our healthcare system — they're all good goals, all critical to moving our businesses and the industry forward.

But the only innovation our marketing and communications should be focused on is demystifying the language we use to communicate in a regulated environment and finding a better way to engage payers and healthcare professionals. Sure, solving these two problems isn't nearly as sexy as chasing the latest “shiny object” (Snapchat to reach patients, anyone?), but those challenges are much more critical to improving the success of our business and our evolution as an industry. So let's agree to kill the innovation team (for digital marketing and communications) and get back to work. Deal?

Zoe Dunn is co-founder and principal of Hale Advisors.