Sheila Babnis on How Stories Overcome Innovation Challenges

by Julie Anixter

While creating new products is challenging in any industry, Pharma may be one of the most challenging environments for product innovation because of regulatory, safety and privacy issues.

Over the course of 3 years as the Head of Product Development Strategic Innovation at Roche, Sheila Babnis helped navigate a team to lead a big change in new product development  – she established an Innovation start-up as a new corporate function, incubating a portfolio of over 50 solutions resulting in 5 major structural shifts in how business is done, building communities, managing a global team and building a network of over 100 innovators across the company.

Babnis’ team evaluated and oversaw external collaborations (consortiums, private and public sector programs) to sustain industry leadership and increase organizational capacity. While there were many factors that contributed to these outcomes, Sheila credits stories, and storytelling, as a secret weapon.

I had a chance to collaborate in some of the storytelling workshops that Sheila Babnis, along led with her team at Roche that were designed to deploy as a strategic tool for leaders.

No stranger to storytelling, what I learned from this particular assignment was, um, life altering.  Coming from the thought leader-brand-communications-public affairs space, I realized I had been immersed in the perfection-of-the-story to be followed by the perfection of the delivery routine.  Sheila, along with Ayelet Baron and Amy Aines, flipped that paradigm on its head and challenged me to think about stories as tokens of engagement (having the right conversation with the right person) to be passed along and to open doors (mental and otherwise) as they “worked out loud” in their “Connected Networks” and trusted communities.  And the business need for storytelling arose from empathy sessions conducted by Ayelet Baron that found that people viewed innovation as a buzzword. Together, we asked what if a story was told every time to replace the word “innovation.” What if we brought innovation to life with stories?  What if we stopped trying to convince people about the importance of storytelling and simply showed them?

Shifting to Storytelling

Here’s what that looked like in practice – we asked her team to bring their most important projects to the table and to create “snippets” and short form 2 page versions on the work they were doing that needed embracing. We worked on those snippets using the familiar construct of simplicity that comes out of the High Concern research, so we didn’t ask people to just show up, we practiced.  But we also said, this is NOT about your delivery.  Don’t create a PowerPoint, just use notes.  Don’t worry about delivery!  Just tell the story in 5 minutes — which each member of the leadership team did.  Then we spent much more time asking the rest of the team – who were all working quite independently on different projects, to respond to the story by answering two questions:

  • What did that story evoke?
  • How/where would use that story?

What resulted was a highly strategic knowledge transfer that seemingly might not have occurred had we stayed in the old forms.

Why is Storytelling Powerful?

Stories are more than presentations, more than eloquent tellings of experiences designed to inspire and inform. No, instead…

  • Stories are invitations to engage
  • Stories are springboards for dialogue and two-way conversations
  • Stories are more easily consumed than theory or strategy
  • Stories are intrinsic to memory, understanding, and sense-making
  • Stories connect us in the connected network and ease change
  • Stories in the end, are greatly preferred to innovation jargon, theory, buzzwords, and even the most compelling “frameworks” and “models”

Craig Hatkoff and Irwin Kula call cultural stories “rapid meaning transfer.”  In high stakes work environments like Roche where the outcomes determine the degree of success in dealing with health, illness, suffering, compassion, communication and stress that real patients experience, stories have a material role to play in moving solutions to them faster.  The story of one Crohn’s patient enabled Sheila and her team to efficiently communicate what they meant by patient co-creation in drug trials.

And as Sheila is fond of saying, “we’re all patients.”

The Power of Stories in Driving Innovation

Stories transfer knowledge, understanding, wisdom, courage.   From where I stand in the world, Sheila herself is the story.  She doubled the pipeline of innovation solutions to improve clinical trials, increased efficiency and reduced the cost of drug development greater than 10%, and drove adoption of innovative approaches resulting in 50% of molecule teams using one or more new tools and greater than 50% of teams implementing proven or adhoc solutions in one year.  These solutions ranged from a Crowdsourcing Tool that connected healthcare professionals around the world to the most intimate caregiver experiences.

When I asked Sheila what she is most proud of from this last chapter at Roche it’s this:  “building trusted communities and improving communications increased employee satisfaction by a score of 20% in less than 24 months.  And, increasing productivity by 10% in less than a year by catalyzing new ways of working and implementing a human-centered approach to work.  Stories played a big role.”

The bottom line is that too often we get comfortable with the buzzwords that surround us. We need a 21st century two-way communication platform that allows us to truly come together to solve problems and co-create. Storytelling works well in transforming cultures.

image credit: Roche

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Julie Anixter is the executive editor and co-founder of Innovation Excellence. She also serves as the Chief Learning Officer for RELEVENTS and Executive in Residence for the Disruptor Foundation. The co-author of three books, she’s working on a fourth on the next innovators. She worked with Tom Peters for 5 years on bringing big ideas to big audiences. Now she works with the Healthcare, Education, Manufacturing, the Military and other high test innovation cultures that make a difference. You can follow her @julieanixter

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