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Rethink: The Story of Edward de Bono in Australia
Case Study
When Paul Epstein joined pharmaceutical company Pfizer Australia in 2004 his immediate challenge was to develop an innovation program for Pfizer’s consumer healthcare (PCH) division. As the division’s head of strategy and project development, Epstein was responsible for steering the PCH Innovation Group – comprising business- unit heads from across the division – which created and managed the program dubbed the Innovation Drive. The Innovation Drive was progressively rolled out across Australia and New Zealand in the second half of 2004 and remains an active program. The objective of the program was to ensure that innovation – or more specifically, “innovative thinking” – became an everyday way of working at Pfizer. In fact, this goal was the focus of a global review of innovation strategies and programs then underway at US-based pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. Pfizer Australia, however, was free to devise its own program, a challenge Epstein and his team accepted with gusto.
Epstein was determined to take a systemic approach to innovation – empowering employees to think creatively by providing them with the tools and techniques to Rethink: The Story of Edward de Bono in Australia innovate, creating the framework for their ideas to be heard and considered, and having the systems in place to harvest the fruits of their creativity. Epstein wanted to introduce consistency to the innovative process, but not be so bureaucratic that it stifled interest.
His aim was to provide employees with the resources to contribute to the company and have some control of their personal and professional destiny as Pfizer employees.
For Epstein, a longtime admirer of Edward de Bono, the challenge of instilling a culture of innovative thinking was the perfect scenario for introducing de Bono’s creative thinking tools. “Edward de Bono has stood the test of time because of the power and simplicity of his tools. This was the ideal environment for introducing his tools,” Epstein explains.1 However, before introducing the de Bono tools, first he had to get the structure The program was introduced progressively over three stages: Explore, Empower and Engage. Privately it was dubbed the Crawl, Walk, Run approach. Between each phase, progress was reviewed and refinements made as necessary. Before introducing employees to de Bono’s tools, Epstein wanted to be sure that everyone understood innovation and its importance to Pfizer.
Pfizer can trace its origins to 1849 with the founding of fine-chemical manufacturer Charles Pfizer & Company in Brooklyn, New York. Today it is the world’s largest pharmaceutical and healthcare company. With research and development expenditure of US$7.4 billion in 2005 and 12,500 scientists employed at research facilities around the world, Pfizer is a company built on innovation. The issue of The Pfizer Journal marking the company’s 150th anniversary in 1999 was dedicated to the theme, ‘The Importance of Innovation in Pharmaceutical Research’. In his editorial, editor-in-chief Dr Salvatore Giorgianni wrote: “Innovation is one of the core principles that has defined Pfizer in scientific discovery throughout the years … Focusing on innovation has made this corporation unusually successful.”2 Pfizer is a company with a well honed sense of corporate self and a rich corporate culture which honours its long and distinguished history of innovation, but which is equally motivated by discoveries yet to be made. Pfizer’s corporate website proclaims: “The pursuit of innovation is basic to Pfizer's culture. It shapes our strategy, defines our Rethink: The Story of Edward de Bono in Australia purpose, and governs every facet of our operations.” Innovation is enshrined in the company’s nine corporate values – along with integrity, respect for people, customer focus, community, teamwork, performance, leadership and quality.
As one would expect of a company founded in the mid-19th century, Pfizer has experienced remarkable change on the road to becoming a global leviathan in the discovery, development, manufacture and marketing of prescription medicines and healthcare products.3 Innovation has been a cornerstone value throughout. Giorgianni’s anniversary editorial noted: “Over this century and a half, Pfizer has reinvented itself as a corporation several times … Throughout Pfizer’s 150 years, the common strategies and elements of our success and growth have been innovation and a focus on the needs of For Pfizer, the stakes associated with maintaining its innovative edge are high.
Innovation is not only a key to its past, but more critically, to its future as well, as underlined in Pfizer’s charter of values, “Innovation is the key to improving health and sustaining Pfizer's growth and profitability.” It was against such a formidable backdrop that Paul Epstein and the Innovation Group set out to develop a new innovation program for Pfizer Australia’s consumer healthcare group. (Internationally, Pfizer has three business segments: prescription medicines, consumer healthcare and animal health.) Pfizer Consumer Healthcare is responsible for over-the-counter medicine brands such as Benadryl, Codral, Listerine, Mylanta, Sudafed and Nicorette. In Australia and New Zealand, PCH employs 200 people in administration, sales and marketing, R&D, and regulatory affairs.
The Innovation Group’s program had the support and active interest of Pfizer’s then regional director of PCH, Joseph Saad. This was important, according to Epstein, “because it gave the project momentum and an acknowledgement that this is where Pfizer was headed globally”. He continues: “The business globally was looking to weave innovation into the fabric of the entire organisation, to ensure that innovation, and more specifically, innovative thinking, became an everyday part of working at Pfizer. And it had to engage everyone. That was the objective: a true cultural shift.” Rethink: The Story of Edward de Bono in Australia Programs aimed at encouraging and rewarding innovation at Pfizer were not new. Pfizer Australia employees had access to local and international idea exchanges, innovation intranets and award programs, but such initiatives did not constitute systematic progress towards a whole-of-company culture of innovation. As often happens with such programs, their appeal was less than universal. Epstein, who was determined to create an innovation program that was genuinely inclusive, believes the composition of the Innovation Group was an important factor in the program’s success. Team members included colleagues with “some serious years at Pfizer under their belts”, according to Epstein. “This was critical to the success of the program in that we had a very robust sounding board with a real feel for what would or wouldn’t work when developing the An early priority of the group was not to alienate employees by making the innovation program complicated or process-driven. “The greatest challenge was to demystify the innovation process by starting out with a simple premise and approach. We were mindful of not reinventing the wheel. It was also a firm belief that an innovative culture, especially to begin with, needed to be developed inside out, rather than outside in,” Epstein recalls.
A deliberate decision was made not to include external consultants in the formative stages of the program, ensuring that the innovation strategies that unfolded were homegrown and not imposed on employees.
Another early decision that would influence the development of the program was to position innovative thinking as an attitude – a “mindset”. If employees could be convinced of the value of innovation from the outset, enough to make a personal commitment to innovation, then setting directions for the program would follow as a natural progression. Innovation, therefore, needed to be more than a manifesto, it had to be a living goal, based on actions. Thus the Innovation Group’s working credo: Action, The locally developed PCH innovation vision – “Making Things Better” – reflected this practical approach. This somewhat prosaic catchcry was broken down to its constituent parts so that employees could understand what things could be made better. More than a slogan, it was a wish-list: Making Things Better for … consumers, employees, manufacturing operations, how PCH does business, for stakeholders, and how Pfizer develops “new thinking and fresh ideas”. Innovation was not about the attainment of lofty Rethink: The Story of Edward de Bono in Australia and abstract goals, but of simple, recognisable and achievable outcomes that employees could identify with. These were values with an everyday resonance.
Achieving them was something every employee could have a stake in, whether working as a receptionist or a research scientist. An early priority of the Innovation Group was to reinforce with employees that the goal of building an innovative culture was a goal for the whole enterprise, not just for the R&D department. Accordingly, new ideas could relate to products, processes or people.
Epstein was clear in the approach to be taken. The two clearly stated objectives for the program were creating new product development – “NPD pipe-fill” in industry parlance – and achieving an “innovative culture shift”. He recalls: “We started with a pretty headstrong approach: this was going to be about action not just talk. But we also knew that the program needed to be as open, involving and fun as possible if it was to become contagious and achieve the desired culture status. This was not about imposing a new order. We wanted innovation to become an embedded way of working at Pfizer, but we knew that for innovation to catch on, we needed to build a sense of ownership from the ground up.” The innovation program was launched in August 2004. A critical feature of the program was its progressive nature, to be introduced in three stages: Exploration, Empowerment Stage 1: Exploration
For most employees, setting time aside for deliberate creative thinking came as naturally as walking backwards. The aim of the exploration stage was to get employees used to thinking, and more importantly, to take a structured approach to thinking. A memo to attend thinking classes was not going to do it. This would require a personal commitment to innovation from each employee. Epstein admits that the early indicators were not encouraging. The standard response from sceptical employees was that they didn’t have the time for new thinking. “I’m sure anywhere in the world that would be the standard catchcry: we don’t have time for that. So we said, ‘what if we ask you to set aside just Rethink: The Story of Edward de Bono in Australia 1% of your time to think innovatively, is that too much to ask?’. In most cases the reply Over two months – August and September – employees were required to spend a minimum of 30 minutes per week “thinking innovatively” with the objective of “making things better”. It was important not to over-formalise these early steps into a structured thinking program; employees were assured that it was up to them when and where they found their 30 minutes of thinking time. It could literally be anytime – over coffee or when driving to work – with a colleague or alone. The aim was to get everyone into the habit of setting aside some thinking time once a week. Employees were urged: “Wherever you may be when you come up with the thought, scribble it down on the back of an envelope”. The aim was that each person would come up with one idea per week. These ideas would be fed by employees into a dedicated intranet site as part of the established NPD project management program called SCIP: Strategic Co-ordination of Innovative A focus of this first phase was encouraging people to share their thinking and ideas.
“Initially we wanted to get them to expel ideas they’d been sitting on for a number of years. Once they got these out of their system they could start to come up with new and During this time employees, while encouraged to come up with new ideas by “thinking innovatively”, were not provided with any tools to assist the process. Employees had, however, been informed that training in ‘thinking tools’ would take place later in the program. This was a critical and deliberate strategy as Epstein explains: “After several weeks people were getting pretty dry [of ideas]. It made them realise how difficult it is to come up with new ideas on a regular basis. Sustaining creativity requires tools and after a few weeks they were hungry for these tools.” Stage 2: Empowerment
The empowerment phase ran over October and November 2004. During this time, employees were still required to set aside 30 minutes’ thinking time a week and to come up with one idea each week. It was at this point that Epstein brought in the consultants, Rethink: The Story of Edward de Bono in Australia or more accurately, the trainers, from the Melbourne-based de Bono Institute.
Employees attended a full-day workshop on de Bono’s thinking tools and techniques, conducted by accredited trainers Susan Mackie and Kendra Overall. The workshop, held in October, was attended by 130 out of PCH’s 200 employees. (The remaining employees – the division’s sales force – did their de Bono training in February the following year.) Employees were introduced to parallel thinking (Six Thinking Hats) and two Lateral Thinking tools, Random Word and Concept Triangle.
Epstein says the timing of the training was critical. Introducing the de Bono tools weeks into the innovation program ensured that the focus remained on innovation as the cultural imperative. The tools – being just that – would assist in achieving that goal, indeed would prove integral to achieving that goal, but the tools were not the ultimate “This progressive approach was about building the habit of creative thinking. Stage one was about getting the basics down, understanding innovation and its application to Pfizer, and reinforcing the point that everyone can participate in an innovative culture. A lot of people genuinely believe that creativity is a special talent that only some people have, or they believe that in their particular job they’re not expected to be creative. Stage one was about giving people a taste of what it’s like to develop new ideas from a blank sheet of paper, stage two was about equipping people with the tools to think creatively.” Employees were free to choose the tools and techniques that worked best for them but were now required to direct their thinking to a focus topic.
During this time employees logged their ideas online to a simple formula that gave a bare description of each idea. Ideas were systematically collated, filtered and assessed by team leaders. Once a month, 40 team leaders met with their teams for one hour.
Originators of ideas read out their idea for quick feedback from the team. These “Hatch- it” sessions provided the first round of filtering. Ideas were deemed either “contenders” – thus progressing from “idea” to “opportunity” for further consideration – or “backburners”, shelved but not forgotten. Originators of ideas still in contention were then required to elaborate on their ideas into a one-page summary, for consideration by the Genesis Group, which met monthly to review opportunities and anoint ideas. The Genesis Group, Rethink: The Story of Edward de Bono in Australia described by Epstein as a “cross-matrix management team”, would determine whether the ideas had early potential or needed to be further developed before being presented to the New Product Portfolio (NPP) senior leadership team. Ideas for new products or processes, once approved by the leadership team, would be assigned to a project team as active projects for development. From the original lodgement of an idea to status as If the innovation program was going to die, it was going to be at this point. Employees would either feel the process was a waste of time, or they would embrace it, or at least give it the benefit of the doubt, as a real opportunity to contribute. “The program was well received. It wasn’t resented by anyone. They knew this was about the future of their company as much as it was about their own futures. This was about personal development and future business development,” Epstein says.
Between August and November, 1,200 ideas were logged. Of those, 60% were product- focused, 25% were about process and 15% were about people issues. Epstein says the spread of ideas was as important as the number of ideas received: a focus on one particular area would have suggested entrenched cultural problems. “If we had 80% of ideas around people or process, we’d know that potentially we had some significant The most telling indicator of the program’s success was reflected in employee surveys conducted in June 2004, prior to the launch of the program, and immediately following the conclusion of Stage 2 in late November 2004. The survey, based on agreement (‘agree strongly’) with given statements, revealed a clear shift in employee attitudes on • “I know what is expected of me when it comes to innovation at PCH”: 38% agreed strongly in June 2004 / 58% agreed strongly in November 2004.
• “It’s simple and easy to submit new ideas”: 45% / 74% • “There is an effective innovation program in place”: 37% / 72% • “We’ve been given the tools/techniques to help us think innovatively”: 35% / 69% Rethink: The Story of Edward de Bono in Australia “By this stage we knew the program had traction. There was no turning back now,” Epstein recalls with undiminished satisfaction.
Stage 3: Engagement
In February 2005, the Innovation Group introduced the third phase of the program: engagement. Armed with the habit and the tools, employees were introduced to a new framework through which they could apply their new learnings to their own business group. Up to this point, the process of generating new ideas had been an individual pursuit on subject matters that were at the individual’s discretion. Employees were now given “focus topics” on which to concentrate their newly honed creative thinking skills.
These topics were framed in the positive, for example, “Generate new ideas in relation to …”. Topics included new processes to improve customer service, work-life balance, introducing meeting efficiencies, and maximising synergies between business units.
By the beginning of 2005, each employee was expected to come up with at least two ideas per month in response to a new focus topic announced by the team leader. (Sales staff, who were introduced to the de Bono tools in February, were required to come up with one idea per month.) Individuals were still required to come up with their quota of ideas, but a series of three-hour off-site group sessions held throughout the year ensured that focus topics were also addressed on a team basis using Six Hats, Random Word and Concept Triangle. Focus topics were related to business units.
As the program developed, and as employees became comfortable with the de Bono tools, further training was conducted to provide employees with a deeper understanding of the thinking tools, including a one-day “step-up” training session with de Bono Institute trainers Mackie and Overall. Team leaders also attended a “creative behaviours” workshop. Such reinforcement was considered critical to “embedding” the use of creative thinking tools within the organisation.
By the end of August, the innovation program had generated a total of 2,500 ideas.
Epstein estimates 125 – or 5% – of those ideas were earmarked as contenders. But he Rethink: The Story of Edward de Bono in Australia “Ideas are never lost, they’re always valuable. It’s just that for some ideas, the time is not right. A lot of it is timing, what’s not right six months ago is right now. It could be that they are not strategically aligned with current priorities or they don’t reflect core competencies of the time. There has to be a culling of ideas, I think everybody understands that, but we reassure people that placing an idea on the backburner is not another way of saying RIP to that idea. That’s why follow-through is key and backburner ideas are regularly reviewed. At one point we reviewed 700 backburner ideas and we pulled out 30-35 ideas for further consideration because of changes to the business landscape.” Epstein says the principal objective of the program was to develop people’s innovative thinking skills and to create a culture of thinking. The Innovation Group’s original contention that the success of the program would rest on the three principles of action, simplicity and follow-through has proven correct. Central to the program’s success, according to Epstein, has been the use of de Bono thinking tools.
“Using the tools gets buy-in at all levels. Because of the tools’ simplicity, everyone, from the receptionist onwards, can contribute to creating a new way of working across the business. The tools make it possible to bring in thinking from any direction. People are using tools, expressing ideas and thinking, and as they experiment with tools, they go beyond the expected. It’s about fresher thinking. It’s about encouraging the freshness of ideas. This is a function of the program, but it’s the tools that make it possible. People develop a belief in their own creativity.” Regular team sessions to consider focus topics as a group have also been a positive feature of the program: “When you share ideas they build on each other. It’s also been important to reinforce innovation as something everyone can do and everyone can share Epstein says one of the benefits of the tools – Six Hats in particular – has been the introduction of a “common language” in relation to creative thinking. “Someone will say, ‘let’s Green Hat this’, and everyone knows what they mean,” he says. Six Hats also creates a new dynamic in meetings, with the focus being on everyone having an opportunity to offer information and opinions in a non-critical environment. “Ensuring that you don’t get dominant people in meetings – which is what happens in most meetings – Rethink: The Story of Edward de Bono in Australia has been so important to fostering a creative environment.” In case the message is lost on participants, all meeting rooms feature posters of the Six Hats.
“People use the Six Hats language. It’s resonating, even with the sales force. A team leader recently had to present her sales force with new objectives, and she received a very negative response, so much so that she thought it would be counter-productive to continue the meeting. She postponed the meeting to the next day, allowing tempers to cool. She used the hats to conduct the meeting and there was a 360 degree turnaround Perhaps the most visually striking illustration of the impact of the de Bono tools at Pfizer Australia was the decision by the company to launch an Innovation Room at its Sydney headquarters in late 2005. The ceiling is divided into the Six Hat colours. “It’s a physical and symbolic representation of our commitment to innovation,” Epstein says.
2 Salvatore Giorgianni, ‘Protecting the Ecosystem for Medical and Pharmaceutical Research’(editorial), The Pfizer Journal, vol 3, no 2, Pfizer Inc, New York, Summer 1999.
3 As a pioneer in fermentation and mass-production technologies, Pfizer played a critical role inthe onset of the modern pharmaceutical era. Among Pfizer’s firsts were the mass production of citrus acid in 1919 and Vitamin C in 1936 and, most significantly, the mass production of penicillin in the 1940s. In 1950, Pfizer launched its first proprietary pharmaceutical product, Terramycin, a broad-spectrum antibiotic, which simultaneously spearheaded the creation of Pfizer’s pharmaceutical division and its international operations. Over the next 50 years and into the new century, Pfizer’s portfolio of medicines would become one of the pharmaceutical industry’s most formidable, although today the company is arguably best known for Viagra, its breakthrough treatment for erectile dysfunction, launched in 1998 and developed at a cost of $US3.3 billion.
(These highlights were sourced from ‘Exploring Our History’ on Pfizer’s corporate website at, which in turn is based on The Legend of Pfizer by Jeffrey L.
Rodengen. 1999 by Write Stuff Syndicate, Inc.) Rethink: The Story of Edward de Bono in Australia


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