You’ve said the pandemic is a reminder of the emotional link between pharmaceutical companies and patients. How so?
Well, there can be a tendency in our industry to think that our customers are stakeholders like regulatory agencies or the doctors our salespeople visit. The patient has traditionally been far away. It’s experiment, discover, create, sell, and then the medicine eventually gets to patients. But the suffering inflicted by COVID-19, and how supply chain issues impacted people’s ability to get drugs and treatment, really underscores how at the end of the value chain is a patient that needs to be treated. Pharmacology is not all science and no empathy. We are here to help patients, not just publish the results of clinical trials.
The pandemic has helped to humanize pharmaceuticals then?
The trend already started for some before the pandemic, but in a way, yes. When you are developing drugs, you are comparing groups to one another through clinical trials. You are looking at big numbers and different sets of criteria to determine averages. Our goal is to try not to define the average patient. We don’t want to be doing average work for the average patient. We want to truly understand what makes patients different and then connect the science to them. Instead of starting with the science, we start with the patient.
Why is that such a radical idea?
Because we aren’t just putting drugs out on the market. We are engaging patients not as a manufacturer of products but as a service provider. Patient value comes not just from our differentiated products but also from the experience and access we provide.
Logistically, what structural changes were required to make that shift?
Our structure, like many other pharmaceutical companies, was very hierarchical and siloed. But with product cycles getting shorter, we had to completely change how we operated to move faster. We had to get flatter and more collaborative. So some of the changes we’ve made include centralizing functions, like finance and human resources, across practice areas instead of having separate departments for each one, and creating cross-functional teams to reduce interfaces between departments and the number of stakeholders around the table.
Did it work?
It’s an ongoing process. Some teams work very well together; others are less fluid. Part of the reason for that is because practice areas (meaning those working on different drugs for different diseases) had been so siloed for so long that they had developed their own language, making it difficult for people in the same company to really understand each other.
You’ve said that reorganizations are never a solution. What do you mean by that?
In order to thrive, organizations always have to be learning and maturing. The goal of any restructuring should be to get rid of the behaviors you don’t want and facilitate the kind of behaviors you do based on where your organization is in its journey.
What kind of behaviors do you want to get rid of?
Lots of people look at the world as an equation to be solved. But in the environment of uncertainty and ambiguity we are in now, that view doesn’t work anymore. We don’t want people who think their solution is the only solution. We don’t want people who are hung up on their expertise and won’t consider other points of view.
And what kind of behaviors do you want to facilitate?
We want our experts to work in an open way with an open mind. We want them to come together to think with diversity to create a holistic outcome for patients. We want our experts to understand that they are not just here to provide answers; they are here to contribute and serve as well.
You actually have a hidden KPI (key performance indicator) for that, right?
Yeah, I call it the “zone of discomfort.” In order to do new things, you have to be willing to be incompetent for a while. One way to tell if people are comfortable with discomfort is by measuring the number of real open- ended questions they ask in meetings. The more of those they ask, the more accepting they are of not knowing all the answers. It shows they are looking to learn. When I first became CEO I did an assessment, and 90% of the time, no open-ended questions were being asked in meetings, even with the board. But to really understand different points of view and contribute to a holistic outcome, you have to be vulnerable.
How big of a cultural change was required to make that mindset shift?
Big. Everyone has to be aligned on the purpose, because if you have discrepancies at the executive level, that leaks through to the entire organization. Luckily, we have leaders that have a sense of service and self-awareness and want to grow and buy into our mission.
So is the mission developing new drugs or treating patients?
Both. Our business is built around innovation and developing new drugs. There’s an assumption in pharmaceuticals that discovering new medicines in and of itself is a sufficient purpose, and there’s some truth to that. But for us, we don’t feel we’ve done our job until the patient we have committed to treat can be treated to the best extent possible.