When innovating: cure the problem, not the symptom (Episode 33)

Interview with Alain Bindels, Head of Innovation Facilitation & Digitalization at Roche.

Alain Bindels is a busy man these days, he is Head of Innovation Facilitation & Digitalization at Roche, a family-owned company with 90,000 employees Roche is really driven by the credo of “Doing now what patients need next”. He was personally affected by covid-19 and this changed his life.

For a company like Roche, innovation can literally be a question of life and death. People can die if they do not get the right diagnosis, so it is crucial that Roche’s innovations work.

Alain has been with the company for 11 years and part of his role is to develop capabilities for innovation , entrepreneurship and agility within the organization. He explained how he, together with his colleagues, are building up an innovation ecosystem that consists of innovative startups, patients, hospitals and other healthcare system partners to co-create new innovations. Understanding the patients’ needs and the needs of our healthcare system are critical factors to deliver the right solutions to society. In today’s world solidarity, company culture and purpose are key to get out of this crisis.

At Roche, they work with many established creativity and innovation tools, and Alain is a trained agile coach and expert in design thinking, business model canvas, Scrum and many other techniques from the world of innovation.

But for our conversation, I did not want to know how Roche uses these established innovation approaches, instead I was much more interested to know what the world of innovation could learn from Roche.

In the industry that Roche is in, a new innovation can cost billions to develop and take years to get approved, so it is crucial that the company develops a way of determining which ideas they should develop and which ideas should be killed. Alain: “Betting on the wrong idea can turn out to be expensive for any company, but for us it can be really expensive…” and then he continued: “You first have to diagnose an idea to be sure that you do not waste a lot of resources on solutions that are not beneficial to your clients. Most of the time people focus on the wrong problem and start building the solution without knowing enough about the cause of the problem”

“Diagnose an idea”!? 

I love it.

As if a human problem is a disease and we need to use creativity to cure it!

His comments triggered an idea in my head: “What if we used the language of diagnosing a disease but instead use it in the creative process?”

I asked Alain to elaborate.

He told me that when Roche develops a diagnostic test, let’s say for a virus they go through many different steps:

Step 1: isolate the cause of the disease.

What is causing it? (Is it a virus or a bacteria for example?) How can we avoid for it to spread? What created it?

2) Identify the virus. Find a way to “see” it, visualize it.

3) Develop a test. Develop a way to show that the test has identified the culprit.

Alain told me that it is important that the test not only can detect the disease, but that it also can easily show the result. (Think about how a pregnancy test, for example, uses a simple blue line to indicate that the woman is pregnant.)

4) Validate.

Make sure that the test created works reliably on multiple people and is sensitive enough. Analyse how precise the test is, etc.

The word “diagnosis” is defined in the dictionary as: “the identification of the nature of an illness or other problem by examination of the symptoms.” and its etymology means: “to know thoroughly” or “know apart (from another),” from dia “between” (see dia-) + gignōskein “to learn, to come to know,” from PIE root *gno- “to know.”

Let’s take some normal, everyday problems:

a) A company might identify that their customers are getting annoyed by having to wait for so long when they call the customer service line. The symptoms might be angry people when they finally get to talk to someone.

If you want to solve the symptom you might decide to play some music to make the waiting less boring.

But by doing that you are only solving the symptoms – not curing the actual “disease” – ie the actual problem: which is that people are forced to wait too long. Installing smarter customer service routines to give service faster might help shorten the queues – and thus getting rid of the actual problem.

b) Or your child is crying because he is angry that his sister is using the iPad. The symptoms might be tears and tantrums, and you might think that the “disease” is that the son wants the ipad – but it can actually be that it is late, and the child is tired, or it’s dinner time and the child is hungry. The solution might not be to give him the iPad – but to give him a banana.

In the case of the crying child or the angry customer it might be easy to identify the symptoms, but harder to figure out what the actual cause of the symptoms is.

And many times the symptoms are much harder to identify. The micro frustrations that customers used to have when they had to stay in the taxi and pay for their ride after they had arrived at their destination were not easily recognised by taxi companies until Uber and Grab showed how much more convenient it could be to ride in a car where the payment is already done when you arrive and you can just step out of the car at your destination.

Learn from Roche and spend a lot of time focusing on diagnosing the diseases rather than the symptoms that exist in your operations. That way you can identify many sick procedures. And if you fix them you will have a more healthy company. And as a result, happier customers.

That was my insight from talking to Alain Bindels about how Roche looks at innovation. Roche, by the way, invests around 9 billion Swiss francs in Research and Development every year because innovation is their lifeblood. This is amongst the highest Research and Development spends in the world across all industries. They are a giant in innovation, and we should learn from them. I know I did today.

(Finally a heads-up: If you are startup and want to join the Innovation registry for future matchmaking Roche business challenges, here: https://lnkd.in/d8_Wapg)




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