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How Roche is scaling innovation culture across the multinational

In the penultimate instalment of #FutureProofonCulture, we check-back-in on Roche’s efforts to overhaul its approach to innovation

By Thomas Brown

Roche rare conditions innovation leader, Anne Nijs

Making change happen in large, complex organisations is not easy — and it doesn’t get much more complex than Swiss pharma giant Roche.

The 125-year-old company is a global leader in diverse fields such as biotech, cancer treatment and in vitro diagnostics. Its 100,000 employees span more than 100 countries, and in its 2020 fiscal period, the group invested some CHF12.2bn (€11.7bn) in R&D, and posted sales of CHF58.3bn (€56bn).

Four years ago, Roche set out to change how it interacted with customers and patient communities, and to challenge its legacy approach to innovation. In early 2021 Sifted spoke with Anne Nijs, who had been spearheading this experiment within Roche’s rare conditions (RC) business unit.

After the initial, smaller-scale success, the idea was to scale this across the wider organisation. One year later, we’re checking in to see how that’s going. Nijs tells Sifted what she’s learnt about the importance of experimentation, relieving the pressure of ROI, evolving your messaging and avoiding rigid standardisation.

Protected experiments

Getting buy-in to a new approach to innovation rarely succeeds on logic or common sense alone. Especially when a business is making bets in the hundreds of millions or billions and those investments spend years in gestation. Even more so when the outcome can actually change or save lives.

Instead of asking leaders to take a leap of faith, Roche began with an experiment.

“We started small, discrete and protected,” Nijs says. “We knew that our traditional commercial engine wouldn’t be as successful in RC, so we had a burning platform for change. The customers within this ecosystem were telling us that they wanted a different form of engagement with us. And the community was incredibly tight-knit and connected, giving us a platform to work with straight away.”

“We didn’t know up front whether this would be successful… we wanted to give ourselves the space and the opportunity to learn”

In choosing RC for this experiment, Roche had selected a niche part of its business. Rare conditions are, by definition, niche rather than mainstream. And this meant that any changes to how the organisation interacted with customers could be done without risk of contagion to the wider organisation — or getting caught up in the inertia and internal resistance which inevitably accompanies change.

“In all honesty, we didn’t know how this would evolve,” says Nijs. “We didn’t know up front whether this would be successful or not but as an organisation we wanted to give ourselves the space and the opportunity to learn, and to explore something that was totally different in our existing approach.”

Roche now has a case example and several years’ of experience to draw upon. Sceptics might point out that this is hardly “data”, but Nijs is pragmatic. “Real patient and customer stories help to show that the vision we have is worth pursuing.”

Breathing room

Another crucial building block in the initial experiment was time.

“We had an up-front commitment of two years for this experiment,” Nijs explains. “We didn’t immediately understand how we would measure success or what good would look like. And in changing our model from transactional to partnership-based customer engagement, the nature of value was going to change — where we find it, and how we measure it consistently.”

Initially, Nijs explains, there was a lot of learning (from other organisations in particular) and feedback was primarily qualitative and based on signals of change. But, understandably, the team lacked hard data, for which they would need both the time for their experiment to bear fruit, and the experience to use the right KPIs to capture that value.

“We needed to allow time to develop meaningful KPIs and measures of success. Having this up-front commitment removed the pressure for us to quantify an absolute return when we hadn’t yet been able to define the size of the prize in terms of value.”

Changing the narrative

As Roche set about extrapolating the innovation model and approach honed within RC to the wider organisation, Nijs highlights an important learning from the initial experiment which now forms part of the rollout.

“In the beginning, you focus a lot on purpose and the why,” she says. “As a transformation lead, you have to role-model the visionary to help instil belief among employees — belief that this new approach will deliver value.”

However, you cannot talk endlessly about vision and purpose because, suggests Nijs, while it can be motivating and inspiring in the early stages of change, it’s not tangible — and it’s the tangible that people quickly crave.

“You cannot talk endlessly about vision and purpose”

“Once you’ve started to paint a picture of ‘the why’ for people, you have to start to connect it with “the how”,” she says. “And once the architecture is in place and people can see how that vision is going to be put into practice, they very quickly want to start to see the early signs of tangible value.”

Nijs offers three tips, drawn from the RC experiment, which are informing how the narrative to change is taking place within Roche.

  1. Stay very close to all those involved in bringing the innovation approach to life — that’s where you’ll identify what people want to know and where there are barriers which you need to tackle.
  2. Don’t restrict how you engage with people use formal and informal channels to listen to your teams, especially important in large or dispersed organisations.
  3. Bring anecdotal stories back from customers and patients — quantifiable and commercial measures can take time to yield results, but qualitative evidence of impact can be powerful too.

Influence rather than enforce

The culture and approach to innovation cultivated in RC during this experimental phase was deemed successful, but Nijs is still cautious about scaling it more widely.

“The work I was leading in RC was in a more or less confined space,” says Nijs. “When you’re going to extrapolate this to an organisation of thousands of colleagues, it becomes something very different.”

Roche’s approach, Nijs says, is one of influence, not control. In particular, she refers to McKinsey’s four roles for leaders in the 21st century — the visionary, the architect, the coach and the catalyst.

“Driving change is harder for the coach and the catalyst,” she says. “You need to enable people to dive into the operational practicalities of the new approach, and to identify how to make this work in their ecosystem and with their customers.”

In short, in a diverse and complex organisation, one size does not fit all.

For Nijs, the overall vision and mechanics for innovation are universal across Roche, but the practicalities of how to do it might vary across the business. Leaders embedded in different business units need support to do it in different ways.

The role of principles

That said, when you’re scaling at an organisation-wide level, consistency is paramount.

“You’ve got to be clear on the must-haves, the non-negotiables,” says Nijs. “We learned that the most effective way to do this is based on principles.”

By using the term “principles”, Nijs aims to dispel any concerns about rigid standardisation in what is a diverse organisation. “What makes our agile, customer-centric approach work in disease area A is not necessarily the optimal approach for disease area B. However, the principles of agile working and the principles of customer centricity are universal.”

“You’ve got to be clear on the must-haves, the non-negotiables”

For example, a central part of the new innovation approach are a series of customer engagement leadership roles, first pioneered within RC, which are based on the following principles:

  1. They are an agnostic, empowered PPOC (primary point of contact) for your ecosystem, with a holistic approach (they embrace a general manager mindset)
  2. They are externally focused with most of their time spent within the ecosystem
  3. They are empowered to lead any ecosystem-specific initiatives that are aligned with Roche’s North Star
  4. They embrace a self-organised structure (collective wisdom, ways of working and self-development by leveraging the diversified skills within the network)
  5. They are the face of Roche, and display exemplary corporate principles and ethical behaviour at all times
  6. They are responsible for creating the conditions to activate the required resources from affiliates/enabling offices and proactively build external and internal purpose-driven networks
  7. They are invited to contribute to the continuous enhancement and simplification of the Infinity Model (Roche’s operational model for customer-centric innovation, developed in RC) and the flexibility to adapt to a changing context

A slower pace of change

Concluding, Nijs offers a reflection on the pace of change.

“You need to look at change as a two-speed operation,” she says. “The experiment in RC was conducted at high speed but in a very controlled context.

“Now that we are rolling this out to the wider organisation, we have to recognise that the pace of change will slow. We have to recognise that the scale and complexity of the task are different, and that more education will be needed among a wider audience.”

Being realistic about the pace of change that people can adapt to, and that leaders can oversee, does not, however, mean weakening one’s ambition.

TL;DR? Key takeaways…

  1. Start small, discrete and protected — find a part of the organisation that can experiment with a new approach to innovation that can be harnessed as a proof point.
  2. Avoid arguing about KPIs or measures of value that need time to develop — instead, fight for breathing room up front and aim to secure commitment to a medium-term period of uncertainty.
  3. Be ready to evolve your messaging — people will want to see evidence of progress quicker than you might think, and qualitative evidence still counts.
  4. Acknowledge the inevitable differences in customers, products and markets — give people the tools and support to figure out how to make a new approach to innovation work practically for their context.
  5. Consistency and rigid standardisation are not one of the same — use principles rather than templates
  6. Recognise that experimentation and rollout are unlikely to operate at the same pace

Let us know where these ideas take you, using the comments below or on LinkedIn or Twitter using the hashtag #FutureProofonCulture.

Thomas Brown is Sifted’s Corporate Innovation Reporter, and a freelance journalist, award-winning author and consultant, specialising in digital transformation, innovation, organisational culture and consumer behaviour. You’ll find him tweeting from @ThinkStuff.

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