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Agile R&D Leaders Are More Successful — and Here’s Why

October 2020

The life sciences industry is largely driven by the demands of the research and development (R&D) cycle. Biotech and pharma companies seeking to promote new products and services must first go through the arduous R&D process before they can bring them to market. Leaving no industry or business model unscathed, COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the R&D process. A McKinsey study of 300 R&D functional leaders, from more than 50 global companies in the sector, reports that, “Across all R&D related groups, companies estimate productivity has fallen by between 25 and 75 percent due to remote working.” Additionally, surveys also suggest the extent to which the crisis has diverted executive attention from normal business. R&D leaders say they are spending an average of 40 to 50 percent of their time on crisis management. That figure rises as high as 80 percent for CMOs and other medical leaders who are members of company disaster response teams. Consumer demands and price competition already are intense. Life sciences companies that are unable to reduce their product time to market will find themselves falling behind global competitors when it comes to research and development.

Yet, this may be easier said than done. McKinsey also reports that “because R&D staff tend to be highly specialized and accustomed to ways of working that are rigid and sequential, moving to an agile model can be disorienting in the early stages until the benefits start to materialize.” Given the uncertainty and volatility of the industry, the following principles of agile leadership will be of immense value as life sciences companies look for ways to revolutionize their approach to research and development.

Embracing innovation

While some pharma and biotech companies are adhering to the same R&D and clinical trial processes they’ve used for decades, forward-thinking companies are seeking new ways to incorporate digital mindsets and technologies into their operations. In addition to a need generated by virtual workforces, modernizing the way these firms organize and manage research could lead to much better outcomes for patients and a much-improved ROI. Technology can make it easier to share data, diversify testing populations, identify potential problems, and monitor progress on both development and testing.

Implementing these technologies, however, presents a major challenge. Much of the drug development and clinical trial infrastructure being used today hasn’t changed significantly in the last 20 years, presenting a significant legacy investment that many organizations hesitate to abandon. In many cases, digital pilot programs have been implemented as piecemeal, solutions meant to augment existing processes, but few companies have taken the big step to scale these initiatives.

Agile leaders can help to shake up the traditionally risk-averse culture of biopharma research and promote a bold new vision to capitalize on innovative technologies. Yet these potentially disruptive changes will necessarily create new problems in terms of efficiency and people at a time when companies already are reeling from breakneck-speed change. Any major innovation is bound to slow down established trial processes and could face significant pushback from a variety of stakeholders, but effective agile leaders have the skills and foresight to adapt to these challenges. Their ability to connect and empathize with the people most impacted by the changes can help them address concerns while still keeping the focus on the company’s future.

Driving efficiency

Although the pharma industry is something of a latecomer to the e-commerce space, the online marketplace for R&D services is maturing rapidly. With so many qualified research vendors building an online presence, it’s possible to find potential R&D partners faster than ever before. Where procurement cycles once could take as long as one to two months, it’s now possible to negotiate contracts and close such deals in a little more than a week.

This streamlined process creates a tremendous opportunity for companies looking to accelerate their R&D processes and get products to market faster. Rather than spending valuable time researching and negotiating with vendors, they can dedicate more resources to doing the research that has the potential to deliver long-term value both to the company and patients. Cloud-based infrastructure and advanced analytics software also make it easier to access valuable real-time data that informs strategic decisions involving the products and services in development.

Pushing the boundaries of efficiency isn’t without its difficulties, however. Most organizations are set up to work around longer R&D cycles based on outdated procurement models. Agile leaders excel at anticipating how changes in one area of an organization’s operations will affect other areas, helping them to better manage the impact of potentially disruptive situations. They understand that balancing organizational necessities will require them to invest in multiple accelerators throughout the company simultaneously. Dealing with the disruptive effects of a digital transformation demands careful prioritization and clear, ongoing communication to the stakeholders involved.

Leveraging talent

In order to develop the next generation of groundbreaking drugs and medical treatments, life sciences companies first need to develop the next generation of pharma professionals. These companies are investing heavily in talent sourcing, with a strong emphasis on diversity and technologically savvy young researchers who will be able to soak up the existing institutional knowledge of a rapidly retiring workforce.

The widespread adoption of digital strategies, technologies and analytics has greatly broadened the traditional talent requirements for the industry, but has also forced it to compete with the tech sector and other industries for the best candidates. Agile leaders must find ways to adapt to this new hiring environment and build the teams that will deliver results in the future. Their ability to connect and empathize with people can help them to identify what attracts candidates to the industry and what factors can help retain them once they’re there. With the right assessment and development strategies, they will be able to meet the needs of employees and keep them engaged even in the midst of other changes throughout the organization.

Identifying agile leaders

Agility is not a new term or skillset. Yet, the implications for what it means to be an agile leader has changed greatly in light of the rapidly evolving pharma industry. Additionally, the context surrounding the industry continues to shift, which is complicated further by COVID-19. From decades of understanding and being able to assess leaders’ levels of agility, these characteristics are common among those who score higher on leadership agility and provide an advantage when it comes to navigating challenges among their leadership teams:

  1. Entrepreneurial – Capable of thinking like an entrepreneur of a startup.
  2. Emphatic about value – Possessing clarity of purpose, with the ability to move it to the center of tactics and across all activities to connect more deeply with stakeholders.
  3. Globally minded, locally connected – Globally minded in terms of both vision and, if possible, experience — but also tapped into local markets and closely in touch with stakeholder needs.
  4. Inclusive – Comfortable empowering others, not stuck in a hierarchical mentality.
  5. Disruptive – Transformative beyond simply innovative, with a proven history of showing a willingness to expand thinking and going beyond the dominant paradigm.
  6. Data-driven – Digitally savvy and a student of data — but not obsessed with data to the exclusion of qualitative measures.
  7. Learning-oriented – Eager to try new things and embrace insights from failure.
  8. Curious – Welcoming of ambiguity, with a dynamic, flexible approach to strategic planning; able to course-correct easily and communicate with different groups in different ways.

Agile leaders must find ways to keep the organization’s long-term goals in sight. For biopharma companies looking to improve their research and development, that means investing in innovation and developing efficient new processes to drive down costs and product time to market, but it also means finding better ways to make a positive impact on people’s lives. With their ability to connect, adapt and deliver, agile leaders have the flexibility and skills to meet this daunting challenge.