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We are the (Innovation) Champions: An interview with Pfizer’s Dan Seewald

Many companies are now claiming innovation is everyone’s job. However, this poses a difficult challenge—how exactly do you encourage employees to learn and use the skills, practices and mindsets that will result in innovation?

Pfizer’s Dare to Try initiative offers a rare solution by providing a robust and clear methodology for its more than 70,000 employees to develop new ideas and take thoughtful risks through experimentation. Central to this program is training hundreds of “ innovation champions” to lead and model these behaviors for teams worldwide. To find out more we sat down with Dan Seewald, a Director of Worldwide Innovation at Pfizer.


First, the million dollar question: how do you actually create innovation champions?

I used to be a wrestling coach and find similarities in building innovation champions—there is no one size fits all approach, but rather a series of principles to help others develop their potential and hone their skills. It really comes down to doing three things continuously:

  • Profiling and attracting: How do you ensure you are getting those that are best suited for this role so the program is set up for success?
  • Training and developing: To return to the coaching metaphor, innovation champions are the ones in the ring so you need to train them in collaborative manner where they can operate and excel independently.
  • Engaging and retaining: Too often I see companies focus on the excitement of the workshops and recruitment, while forgetting about investing in the ongoing work needed to keep champions motivated. Not doing the day-to-day post-workshop engagement will result in a high attrition rate and undermine the program as a whole. As much as we are in the innovation business, we are also in the people business.

Using this approach we have developed an active network of 500 champions around the world, whose objectives are to accelerate innovation daily. Members of the champion network are called upon by local teams to get ahead of shifting priorities and objectives as they arise on the horizon. Champions help teams identify problems and opportunities and, hopefully, find an innovative solution.


What would you say are the traits that really make for successful champions?

We have trained champions across dozens of cultures and in every region around the world. While what makes a great champion in parts of Asia may be slightly different than what works best in the northeast USA, in truth no place has “better” champions than another.

The best predictor of a successful champion is:

  • Have an entrepreneurial spirit, which comes down to a willingness to take risks.
  • Being a highly curious and inveterate problem solver.
  • Having a flair for facilitating and leading discussions and being active listeners.
  • The ability to become interested in other people’s challenges. Although we teach champions how to facilitate innovation regardless of content, it helps tremendously if they can become passionate about other people’s problems and helping to solve them.



Is there a role for actual entrepreneurs in your process?

Yes, definitely. Before even touching on the external aspect, within any large organization, you will inevitably come across many clandestine entrepreneurs. We constantly seek them out to work with our teams.

Going a step further, our group regularly collaborates with outside entrepreneurial networks and organizations. This is an essential ingredient to our success, as entrepreneurs not only bring a fresh perspective, but they also show us cutting edge approaches that we might otherwise miss within the walls of our organization. We extract, role model, and in some cases, emulate their mindsets and habits.


What is the role for higher level management in this process?

In any organization that has achieved a degree of maturity and stability, it is incredibly difficult to disrupt what has worked and made you successful. It takes a broad, sweeping shift in mindsets and perhaps capabilities as well. The support of executives is then crucial and no innovation initiative will go anywhere without total buy-in. Luckily, at Pfizer, our leadership have been committed to innovation early on, so getting complete support has not been an issue for us.


Is nurturing innovation different for executives than for front-line employees or your champions?

The short answer is that the experimenter’s mindset is just that—a mindset. Whether we are talking about an executive or a front-line employee, everyone needs to work with a “learner’s” (as opposed to a “knower’s”) mindset. A learner’s mindset is the ability to work from a thoughtful plan that encourages serialization of efforts, measurement, and some kind of learning loop. Thomas Edison hit the nail on the head by saying that his failures were even more valuable than his successes because of what he learned from them.

So whoever it is—everyone benefits when we embrace a learner’s mindset. It is this approach that paves the way for real and meaningful change.