What healthcare leaders can learn about innovation from Pfizer CEO: 6 details

In March 2020 when COVID-19 swept the globe, Pfizer Chair and CEO Albert Bourla, PhD, challenged his team to develop a vaccine faster than has ever been done before. By November, Pfizer became the first company to develop a successful vaccine candidate, Dr. Bourla wrote in a Harvard Business Review report.

To do so within eight months took putting patients first, freeing scientists from financial targets and building a solid leadership team.

Six things healthcare leaders can learn from Pfizer's strategy:

  1. Connect scientists and executives to patients.
    Pfizer needed to focus on both its patients and shareholders to create value. Pfizer hung photos of patients on the walls of its buildings to drive that point home to executives and employees, he said.

  2. Build a strong leadership team.
    Pfizer added a digital and technology officer to improve digital capabilities, a group president of the biopharmaceuticals unit to rethink its market model, a chief human resources officer to encourage excellence, equity and joy, and an executive vice president to improve business services.

    From June 2019 to April 2020, Pfizer added four board members with scientific or business expertise.

  3. From manufacturing to senior executives, success is a team effort.
    Dr. Bourla said every single Pfizer employee, from senior executives to transportation staff, was a vital part of vaccine development: "Without the tremendous sacrifices of team members who gave up their weekends and holidays, went months on end without seeing their families, and worked harder and more hours than they ever had before, we never would have succeeded."

  4. It pays to put purpose first.
    The positive financial impact of the vaccine is only possible because the return on investment was never a consideration, Dr. Bourla said. He said the private sector has a responsibility to help solve society's biggest problems. The typical vaccine development program can take up to 10 years and costs more than $1 billion. There was no guarantee the program would be a success.

    "We did not want our decision to be driven by the need for financial returns alone," Dr. Bourla said. "Saving lives — as many and as soon as possible — would be our top priority."

  5. When setting a huge goal, encourage out-of-the-box thinking.
    What worked in the past will not create a new reality, he said. When teams presented Pfizer leaders with solutions that have already been done, Dr. Bourla said they kept asking for new creative ideas. After a few months, it became a habit for teams, and they brainstormed these ideas on their own.

  6. Relieve scientists from financial concerns.
    Pfizer freed its scientists from excessive bureaucracy and didn't involve them in budget targets and annual earnings-per-share expectations. They allowed them the leeway to spend as needed.

To read the full list of lessons learned, click here.



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