Can ‘design thinking’ revolutionise pharma’s culture?

Views & Analysis

As part of pharmaphorum’s ‘eye-on-innovation’ series, Paul Tunnah speaks to UCB’s head of innovation, Gregory Miller, about how the company is creating a culture based around ‘design thinking’.

All too often pharma is accused of being distant from the patients that it aims to serve – and UCB is aiming to counter this by fostering a new patient-centric way of thinking throughout the organisation.

Design thinking encourages research into products by studying the needs of a target audience, then using these insights to create new products.

The idea is to create products that are led by the needs of customers – something that is vital to pharma companies in an increasingly competitive commercial landscape.

Miller told pharmaphorum at the eyeforpharma conference in Barcelona: “It’s unique as it is reconciling the left brain and the right brain, at the individual and organisational level. It’s usually seen as a creative crazy thing, but it’s really rigorous. And there is a real step-by-step process.”

To create this patient-centric approach, Miller has eschewed the approach taken by competitors and decided against the creation of a separate business unit to push forward the innovation agenda.

While UCB’s centre of excellence is there to provide leadership, the idea is to embed this patient-centric method of thinking throughout the global organisation.

Miller wants to generate creative space before the company begins to try and exploit an idea commercially.

“Most companies have created their own innovation unit because they realise it’s very difficult to drive innovation. Overall companies tend to focus on exploitation because it’s all about the next quarter, but companies need to leave some space for exploration.”

He added: “In general companies say that exploitation does not mix with exploration, but then they lack the connectivity to the business; it’s a separate planet – they have no energy to implement.

“So, learning from that, we have decided to go the other way round – to mix exploration into the exploitation organisation.”

UCB’s approach is to pick out innovators in the global organisation and enable them to succeed, Miller explained.

He said: “All the people we work with in the innovation stream are people we have identified as passionate innovators who can make change happen across the organisation. We have people in this community who are from the US, from China, from commercial, from medical, even from compliance and legal, because they understand that they need to do things differently. So design thinking is a new way of working and you can apply it anywhere.”


Miller explained that the company fosters innovation by setting a series of challenges based on the design thinking ethos and attempting to find solutions to them.

There were 15 challenges set last year, but this will be reduced to five this year, he said, in order to produce a more focused response.

“One challenge was how to distribute an allergy drug directly to patients in some Eastern European countries to avoid going through intermediaries. It was a great design challenge about distribution and had a clear patient user,” said Miller.

UCB is also trying to apply design thinking to internal issues, like compliance. Compliance is a tricky, but very important, subject for every pharma company, but all too often the approach is to use e-learning modules that are signed off to train staff.

Without giving too much away, Miller explained that UCB hopes to make its compliance training more engaging, to ensure staff become compliant, but in a way that they find more stimulating.

He said: “It’s not often a great user experience. It’s a great UCB company protection, but for the user it’s not so good. This is something that was started last year and will continue this year. It’s how to disseminate the decision framework but with a great user experience in the centre. It seems like a really dry item, but if done well it could be a really fascinating experience for the end user.”

Enemy of digital health

Miller explained: “This is, in a way, the best enemy of digital health. In digital health 80% of what I see is technology, but with that we forget the user experience.”

However, he conceded that design thinking could be used as a tool to improve add-ons such as patient support programmes, nurse programmes, and call centres.

In the future, the idea is to have a series of in-house innovation champions, who are well versed in design thinking and will be available at a fraction of the cost of external coaches.

“It is one of the key capabilities UCB has highly prioritised – that we want to be between build, buy and borrow. We have been buying and we have been borrowing and now we want to build.”

There are few other pharma companies that are taking design thinking seriously, according to Miller, “They have few initiatives where they really put design at the forefront.”

For those companies who want to find out more, Miller suggested reading an influential article published around a decade ago by the Harvard Business Review. Then there are courses in the Hasso-Plattner Institute and Stanford University that could help to develop the capability for organisations wishing to drive the agenda forward.

But, he warned, “It is fun to do but can die really quickly if it is not done well. It will be the buzz and people might try, but, because their organisation is resistant, they don’t get the results they expect. My advice is to be persistent and professional and measure and see the results. The results can create a snowball effect in the organisation.”

About the interviewee

Gregory Miller is Vice President and Global Head Innovation Accelerator CoE at UCB. Gregory’s former roles at UCB include Vice President and Global Patient Experience Lead, VP and General Manger, CNS BU and VP of Sales and Marketing Operations. Gregory has over twenty years’ experience working in the pharmaceutical industry, with a strong focus in innovation, business operations and strategic planning. Gregory graduated from Solvay Brussels School with an MBA in business.