Breaking down pharma silos to build value

As the pharma industry wrestles with new ways of working that can deliver valuable medicines to market, Nick Proctor explores how it can break down internal silos and ensure more nimble and effective cross-functional working.

“______ just doesn’t get it!”

It’s a phrase every consultant working within the pharma industry hears on an almost daily basis. Someone, in function ‘a’, bemoans the lack of understanding from somebody else, in function ‘b’. Everyone is guilty of it – research, sales, marketing, market access, regulatory etc. It’s like they all speak a different language and it’s always some else’s fault!

But why? And what can we actually do about it?

Well, understanding the root cause is a good starting point. Looking back on my career I have been fortunate enough to cover many different areas, starting with a heavily scientific PhD and post-doc fellowship, before making my home in market access. A colleague of mine, also in market access, arrived there via an entirely different path, via market research and management consultancy.

“Everyone is guilty of it – research, sales, marketing, market access, regulatory etc.”


Both of us therefore understand how people in different functions are wired to think in different ways, but we have also seen these people brought together by inspirational team facilitators – individuals who can bring the energy of a room together through skilled use of tools and techniques to align teams into a unified, coherent position. But the thing is – what happens when they leave the room? Does the détente only last a day?

As the wise fishing rod salesman once wrote, “give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, so are we just patching the problem with such team building exercises rather than finding a permanent fix?

Well, there are some sources of inspiration to consider when looking at the problem.

Breaking the inner circles

In his excellent TED talk, Simon Sinek (see below) describes some of the most valuable characteristics of leaders in the context of tribal organisations. Specifically, the concept of ‘expanding our circle of safety’ is all about how we can align on common beliefs to create effective, collaborative environments. One of the greatest threats to achieving this is the formation of hierarchical or functional ‘inner circles’, the generation of ‘them versus us’ settings which is exactly what we frequently see in pharma companies. The larger the company, the worse it usually is. They are even often called divisions.


Simon Sinek: Why Leaders Eat Last

Could this be one of the mystical properties of biotechs, which drives innovation and that big pharma tries so hard to emulate? Certainly, I would observe that the divisions within biotechs and SMEs are much smaller; teams tend to celebrate their multi-functionality, with objectives and overall beliefs more closely aligned across skill sets. As you might expect, more efficient processes and quicker results follow.

Building common beliefs

Once the inner circles have been broken, the next task is to build common beliefs, which can form the foundation of constructive cross-divisional interaction and collaboration.

This approach is particularly elegantly explained by Damian Hughes in his book How To Change Absolutely Anything: What the best leaders know, do and say. He has applied this principle to both sporting excellence and corporate change management with great success. Interestingly, I have found that the true beliefs between functional teams are actually less misaligned that we might think, but the real challenge lies in communicating this fact. Without this, the whole structure falls down, but once that understanding is there, trust will follow and along with it some highly effective working.

“Could this be one of the mystical properties of biotechs, which drives innovation?”

To tackle this, a typical component of stereotypical team-building is to introduce a common challenge where the participants find themselves united in their objectives, e.g. building a bridge or herding sheep. While these are always energetic and successful on the day, they don’t really mimic the kinds of complex and technical interactions needed within pharma, so something more than a fun day out of the office is required.

The way forward for cross-functional pharma

A new approach is therefore needed that can combine breaking down the inner circles and building common beliefs in a way that is reflective of the diverse challenges found within pharma. To do so, this unifying force needs to possess a number of properties.

It has to be alien: Essentially, none of the teams can feel like they alone have ownership of the challenge. This avoids perceptions of priority and establishes a need for open collaboration.

It has to be a threat: The challenge will be perceived as a specific challenge to both their function and their organisation as a whole.

It has to be soluble: There must be a way of addressing the challenge by combining skills.

It has to be rewarded: There should be an incentive to each function, which they will value as a reward for overcoming the challenge.

But this is not an abstract concept. It has been done, and when it is done properly the effects are startling.

Looking outside our industry for a moment, there is a startling comparison between two major UK retail organisations. The Co-operative Group and John Lewis Partnership share the common goal of existing for their membership, rather than external shareholders. But when those goals are challenged the commitment to complementarity is challenged. The Co-operative has faced many challenges recently and has arguably failed to live up to some of its ideals when placed under pressure. John Lewis, on the other hand, has continued to perform in an increasingly challenging market place. How much coincidence that every one of the 91,000 John Lewis partners is intimately familiar with the corporate ethos and is committed to the same goals? Can the Co-operative’s 90,000 say the same? Or Pfizer’s 100,000?

“This company illustrates the power of an aspirational, unifying force that everyone can rally behind”

Genentech may seem an obvious pharma industry example, but we use it because many people are instantly familiar with its reputation for innovation and being a great place to work. This company illustrates the power of an aspirational, unifying force that everyone can rally behind: to develop medicines that are either the first or the best in class. Genentech also has a culture which deliberately seeks to avoid the ‘inner circles’. They say themselves that employees feel they have ‘the best of the corporate and academic worlds’ and there a number of well-known examples of how it fosters a sense of belonging and ‘we’re in it together’. These include:

• An intense interview process to ensure new joiners share the same spirit and passion, followed by an induction process focused heavily on the company’s philosophy.

• An extremely non-hierarchical culture typified by not wearing ties, and illustrated by not providing special treatment to senior executives and by providing an exceptional benefits package to all.

• Internal celebrations each time the company achieves a milestone on the way to reaching their goals (from printed t-shirts to rock concerts on campus).

Of course, even with these techniques it is not easy. Building a trusting and highly functional working environment is not a simple or quick process, it needs existing prejudices to be broken down and new habits developed. But by using these properties, along with an understanding of the skills and aptitudes of each functional team, we can start to build alignment and get to a unified way of working.

One thing is certain, in addressing the major challenge for pharma today – delivering value – such collaboration is vital. If it goes wrong, it’s everyone’s fault, so everyone needs to ‘get it’.



About the author:

Nick jointly leads the team of curious minds at Adelphi Access and has been consulting with the pharma industry for over 15 years. He started off with a degree, PhD and post-doctoral fellowship before wandering into consultancy with pharma R&D. A swerve into the nebulous and exciting world of market access left him saying “____ just doesn’t get it!” far too often. And then wondering what to do about it.

Adelphi Access is a team of consultants who want to work on interesting challenges and genuinely enjoy solving problems. It’s all about healthcare for a reason: we’re passionate about helping making the right change happen and believe we have the experience, knowledge and curiosity to make a difference.

Our team provides consultancy advice across a wide range of client and therapy areas. We are experts in international healthcare systems and the customers within them. Importantly, we’re not afraid to speak our minds; our clients value our honest and informed opinion.

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Closing thought: What can pharma learn from biotech about breaking down silos?