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European Pharmaceutical Contractor

Science Fiction, Not Science Fact

Big pharmaceutical companies are not alone in having to transform the efficiency of their research and development teams. Most businesses – from banks to supermarkets – are looking hard at how their creative engines can deliver more for less. How can Big Pharma do it?

Pharmaceutical R&D teams are facing urgent challenges. Their big brands are tumbling over the ‘patent cliff’, and the increasing burden of costs on governments and individuals to pay for the healthcare of an aging generation is hampering the launch of new drugs. Too often the chosen remedy is a contradictory mix of cost cutting,and exhortations to up the output of successful new drugs. This may be painfulto hear, but most R&D teams we’ve worked with are comprised of people who are risk averse and analytical, not entrepreneurs. It’s unsurprising to find low morale lurking in these organisations.

The crisis has promoted radical new ways of developing drugs. However, radical solutions take time to take hold. The good news is that many complex, regulated businesses outside of health care have increased the efficiency of their innovation engines, and many have implemented hundreds of subtle, inexpensive changes that aggregate to a wholesale change in culture. If pharma R&D teams take a look at their practices and experiment with how they work, they too can become more agile and productive, even with fewer people and resources.

The single most important driver of innovation is passion. It’s a desire to do a great job, to make your customer happy, or to right a wrong. A small team joined with a similar passion forms a strong dynamic, but sadly it’s hard to find. Here are three strategies for developing passion in pharma R&D teams.

1) The White of their Eyes

In the 1990s, many packaged goods companies caught the insight bug.

What had been called market research – a paper-heavy desk exercise – was replaced with hands-on executives who swapped PowerPoint for notepads, got out of the office, and saw how and whytheir consumers did what they did. They were shopping, eating and even clubbing with their customers. This adventurous approach to seeing the whites of customers’ eyes was not restricted to marketing. Scientists and technicians left the lab for the living room, too. We have found this approach to be highly effective.

Here’s an example. A major, global pharmaceutical client of ours had received bad news. Its antidepressant drug had failed its stage-two clinical trials, a development with potentially fatal implications for share price. But what did ‘fail’ mean? Digging into the target product profile (TPP) revealed ambitious performance goals across key dimensions of efficacy, side-effects, and tolerability. To be successful, this had to be a wonder drug. The scientists had been stuck in the lab too long. They were struggling to connect with the emotions that patients and their caregivers were experiencing.

We suggested a new approach. We travelled across the US with them to meet people suffering from a wide range of depressive states. We met a musician whose guitars were covered with dust, a man who hadn’t been outdoors for years, and a painter who was hearing voices as we spoke to her. We met people who were young, old, who had care, and who had no-one to turn to. This experience was moving, even for scientists who had studied depression for years.

What the scientists took away from their trip was how crippling the side-effects of antidepressants could be. They had read about this, but not witnessed it. One teenage sufferer had told them that full remission wasn’t worth it if she gained weight, stopped sleeping, andsweated all day. The TPP demanded efficacy above all else. Patients wanted a more balanced approach.

The scientists went back to the lab and amended the TPP. They rebalanced what they were looking for: a drug with a slightly lower performance measure and less intrusive side-effects. And guess what? They already had the molecules to deliver against that TPP. The road trip paid off! The scientists didn’t have to start from scratch, slashing development time by several years – a turn of events predictedto save the company more than $1 billion. 

2) Stop Being Sensible

Most people in business apply an abundance of analysis, objectivity and scepticism to new ideas. We call these ‘reductive’ behaviours. Because their cultures are based on the scientific discipline of clinical trials, pharma companies are thronged with reductive thinking ninjas. In innovation, reductive thinking is vital when applying commercial judgments to emerging solutions. However, without ‘expansive’thinking, those new solutions will be strangled at birth.

Expansive thinking is what a child does when you give him or her a gift in a box, and they spend the next week ignoringthe gift and turning the box into a car or a house. It’s thinking that seeks multiple possibilities, rather than one right answer. It’s based on playfulness and positivity: an agreement to build on each others’ ideas rather than knock them down. Since we were all children once, we can rediscover how to think expansively with a bit of practice.

The trick to expansive and reductive thinking (and, therein, the secret to effective collaboration) is to make sure that, when solving a problem, your team knows it’s either thinking expansively and generating solutions, or that it’s time to think reductively and moveinto choosing mode. You’re avoiding situations where these behaviours get mixed up. We’ve all been in meetings where somebody has suggested an idea, and five helpful souls have told him what’s wrong with it in the same moment. We’ve also all been in meetings where you’re trying to make a choice, but others want to open up the discussion to new ideas.

We use a term called ‘signalling’ in our innovation training. It means acquiring the habit of letting those around you know if you need expansive or reductive thinking at that point. Consider a typical exchange: 

Scientist A: “Hey, why don’t we create a website and release our challenges and data for the world to work on – an open innovation programme.” 

Scientist B (raises eyes to heaven): “Hmm, we tried that, and it didn’t work.”

This isn’t a healthy dialogue. Now let’s see what happens when Scientist A uses a ‘signal’. 

Scientist A: “Hey, I’ve got an idea, but it’s only half-formed. Can you help me build it? Why don’t we create a website andrelease our challenges and data for the world to work on – an open innovation programme.” 

Scientist B (realising an expansive response has been requested): “OK, let’s explore. We could do that, but we’ve not had a lot of luck. Your idea makes me think we should hold a conference and invite a small number of leading researchers to collaborate. Now there’san idea I hadn’t thought of!”

Introducing planned expansive and reductive thinking to pharma R&D teams, managed with clear signalling, transforms a team’s ability to collaborate and innovate. 

3) Fact or Fiction?

One of the biggest challenges facing pharma R&D leaders is knowing where to place strategic bets that won’t pay off for 10-20 years. Smart organisations are learning that approaches they used to rely on for future-scenario development do not work anymore. They have to think like science fiction writers, not rational analysts, and develop scenarios to place bets that are leaps ahead of what the competition is seeing.

To ensure the bets they place are smart, we developed an approach called ‘foresight’. It marries future ‘certainties’, such as demographic change, and with collaborative ‘imagining’ events to produce scenarios with a 10-20 year horizon.

Recently, we used this approach for amajor fuels and lubricants manufacturer. We sought to broaden the question beyond current paradigms, engaging experts and academics outside the category. In this case, the usual question might have been: “What’s the future of lubricating oils?” However, asking thatquestion ensures that answers remain inside the current business model. So we asked: “What’s the future of mobility?”

We gathered anyone who had anything to say on the future of mobility. Our R&D scientists heard from travel writers, airline stewards, chauffeurs, people with restricted mobility, road planners, and even someone who claimed to have invented a teleportation device.Immersing themselves in a ‘future world’ of possibilities, in which their product or brand may play a role, stretched the team’s thinking. The company is now allocating multi-million dollar investments in future ‘mobility worlds’ that were not obvious at the outset.

We’ve mirrored this approach with other pharma R&D teams. In a recent exercise looking at compliance in respiratory medication, we flipped the challenge from ‘how to comply’ to ‘how to create desire.’ We introduced scientists to fashion and perfume houses, and they realised that the formulation development of, say, inhalers was less important than the aesthetics. This prompted a shift in investment away from formulation research and towards the development of stylish devices, which had shorter lead times and fewer regulatory hurdles.

Seeing the whites of patients’ eyes, signalling intent, and swapping ‘sci-fact’ for sci-fi are simple, low cost, and even funtools for injecting passion – and impact – into innovation.

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Matt Kingdon gained his degree in Law and Economics at Durham University and worked with Unilever marketing across its broad brand portfolio in the UK, South East Asia and the Middle East. Matt founded ?What If! in 1992 with business partner Dave Allan and led the business to become first in the Financial Times ‘Best Company to Work For’ in Europe in 2005 and 2006. Matt is the author of the recently published book, The Science of Serendipity: How to Unlock the Promise of Innovation in Large Organisations.

Jon Platt has an MA in English from Oxford University and previous to joining ?What If! was the Creative Director at JWT and GREY in the UK and Australia. Jon now heads up ?What If!’s Manchester office and is the leader of its healthcare sector. Jon has previously spoken on the subjects of ‘The Power of Insight to transform healthcare’ at Harvard and ‘Disruptive Innovation in Clinical Trials’ at Philadelphia.

Matt Kingdon
Jon Platt
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