The pharmaceutical industry is traditionally one of the most innovative of them all, developing better and more effective products – medicines, that alleviate disease, pain and suffering. Recently, though, the industry seems to have lost its traditionally innovative streak. Yet, instead of getting despondent, I would like to think that strategic planning in such an organization should be a very exciting time. A time when people, who are the best at what they do – at least in that organization – come together to collectively develop solutions to problems that hold it back from surpassing its expectations. It should be a time when cross-functional teams work with each other on a venture, learn from each other’s diverse capabilities and add value to both themselves and cumulatively to the organization. If that happened, it would be exciting indeed for that would make the organization a very progressive and forward looking one. And who wouldn’t want to be a part of such an organization?
Yet, sometimes, the excitement gets lost in the processes and SOPs. And this dogmatism is dangerous if it threatens to enforce boundaries in a place such as a meeting to plan strategy. These boundaries often define methodology – requiring someone to do something “this way and not that”. A golden rule to such planning sessions is to not start with the methodology, but with the problem. Many times, work on a venture tends to start with the methodology. And it is most likely, that’s where most of the time gets wasted. It is quite rare that team members would agree upon methodology if it is discussed before the problem is analyzed threadbare.
When a team starts with a problem that’s of interest and applies whatever methodology is appropriate, the team members have quality time to focus on finding never-done-before, innovative solutions to the problem rather than focusing on how to do it. After all, the problems of greatest interest are those that you cannot explain with the current prevailing solutions – the so-called ‘benchmarks’.
If an organization aligns its growth plans with the problems currently prevailing in the environment in which it operates, it is best suited to find opportunities to develop solutions for those problems. And these are where it has the highest probability of finding not just new, but breakthrough growth opportunities.
The sad part is that teams that are tasked with developing breakthrough plans, barely recognize these opportunities even when they stare them straight in the face. The think-tank gathers in a plush hotel conference hall, listens patiently to the CEO and other senior leaders urge them to ‘think differently’ and then goes about working in the very same manner as it did in the preceding days and weeks, not realizing that it is that very style of functioning that necessitated the workshop they were in!
This has a lot to do with dealing with the pressure that the team faces to convince the company leadership of commercial viability of their ideas. A critical aspect that senior executives forget at this stage, is that the most powerful ideas – that could put the company on course to the next BIG thing – would not come out of multiple examples or ‘benchmarks’. They come out of intuition, business acumen and single case studies. Big impactful ideas are conceptual breakthroughs, not descriptions of common patterns.
Now this may sound contradictory since business acumen and intuition comes from loads of experience. And experience brings with it the need to fall back on best practices. Breakthrough ideas are – to borrow from C.K. Prahalad – “next practices” not best practices. You can’t define the “next practice” with lots of examples and benchmarks. Because, by definition, it is not yet happening.
If a pharmaceutical company looked for the ever-eluding growth opportunity, it wouldn’t have to look very far. Instead of focusing on the problems that the company faces such as an over-regulated environment, non-level playing field (domestic companies vs. MNC pricing & promotional practices), fragmented and complex healthcare delivery and distribution framework etc., what if it focused on the environment and on the customer instead?
The problems that the healthcare consumer faces are quite obvious. India is yet to measure up to international standards of domestic healthcare. A majority of citizens still struggle for access to primary healthcare, and diseases such as malaria and cholera continue to kill. Other challenges include inadequate affordable healthcare infrastructure, especially in rural areas. Also, in times of calamities, the protracted response time of emergency services drives up the number of fatalities. As I had written earlier, simply focusing on creating awareness, access, availability and applicability provides vast swathes of opportunities for companies to create meaningful value for society and economic value for themselves. When this balance is struck in strategic plans, they move from being capitalistic messes to becoming socially responsible and commercially viable.
With so much to do, especially when India is one of the two most promising ‘pharmerging markets’, strategy teams in pharmaceutical companies must be bursting with ideas. It is, but a matter of time, that mainstream pharmaceutical companies will find their lost streak of innovation. This time in services too, if not in products alone.