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Striving to have sustainable innovation programs where there are breakthrough ideas is the top goal of many companies. It’s not an easy process and takes years of investment and diligence and the finish line is never reached. However, we’ve all seen the rewards of companies that make the commitment: they are leaders in their field and consistently outperform their competitors.
Pfizer and Qualcomm are both leaders in their field and not surprisingly, both have been committed to innovation for decades. I had the privilege of working with both of these inventive global companies, helping launch global employee innovation programs to tens of thousands of participants. As any innovation practitioner knows, no two programs or company cultures are the same, and on the surface these two companies would seem to share nothing beyond being members of the Fortune 500.
Pfizer is headquartered in New York City, has been in business for over 160 years, and operates in a highly regulated industry creating pharmaceutical products using chemistry and biology. Qualcomm, based in San Diego, was founded in 1985 and in just three decades has helped power the smartphone revolution through the development of 3G/4G wireless solutions and cutting edge mobile computing technology products. At Pfizer, the VPs wear tailored suits. At Qualcomm, the most distinguished engineers wear shorts and flip flops. From their product portfolios to their corporate cultures, they couldn’t be more different at first glance.

However, when it comes to innovation, they share 3 important similarities.


1. The belief that good ideas can come from anywhere.

Both Pfizer and Qualcomm have reinvested a large portion of their budget in R&D, with spending over $6B and $3B per year, respectively. Despite the reliance on expertise in R&D for innovation, however, both have also regularly turned to all employees to feed new ideas into the funnel.
Pfizer has been running global idea management programs for a decade, fielding ideas from all corners of the workforce and has recently launched an enterprise-wide program that strengthens all employee ties to innovation. Qualcomm’s ImpaQt program taps into the collective intelligence of its employee network as part of regular innovation challenges to both contribute new ideas as well as to evaluate ideas and sponsor promising concepts.
In both organizations, leadership believes that customer-centric ideas can come from anywhere: developers, designers, salespeople, researchers and beyond.


2. Both companies know expertise alone is not enough for a sustainable culture of innovation.

Both companies are selective recruiters, hiring technical experts with more degrees than a magnetic compass. The collective brainpower on the floors of either campus is truly staggering, with teams of engineers and scientists generating thousands of patents and breakthrough technologies and products.
Though highly technical organizations have tremendous benefits, they can also make aspects of running an innovation program quite challenging. Getting beyond the incremental innovations can be difficult, with teams focusing on the core competencies they’ve spent entire careers refining, often getting stuck in what Edward De Bono called “Rivers of Thinking”.
Greenhousing promising ideas is a daunting task, with individuals viewing concepts through a critical and reductionist lens and with technical review boards and other stage gate processes, designed in many ways to minimize risk and let through only ideas highly aligned with existing businesses, shooting down concepts before the get started. Relying on expertise alone to imagine or review and select more disruptive innovations is often ineffective, because how can one be an expert in a concept that doesn’t exist yet?

Value expertise, but ensure it doesn’t lead to eliminating potential breakthrough ideas too early.


3. Human-centered design is paramount in finding breakthrough innovation.

Recognizing the importance of introducing new mindsets and methods for innovation, both Pfizer and Qualcomm have incorporated design thinking into their innovation programs as a way to get beyond the incremental. Pfizer’s VP of Worldwide Innovation, Wendy Mayer, has openly discussed the need for opening minds to new thinking, and her team’s “Dare to Try” program is built around the concepts of human-centered design and, in partnership with batterii, is being rolled out to thousands of colleagues around the globe.
Qualcomm, through its ImpaQt program, has partnered with IDEO to introduce design thinking to its innovators and help coach them through the scoping and implementation of approved ideas and concepts.

Weave empathy into the front end of the innovation processes to complement expertise.
As Pfizer and Qualcomm demonstrate, having a leading innovation program involves including the entire workforce to participate in the effort and values expertise and empathy. Of course, these are just two examples, and we know there are more.