What’s Next for the Pharma Industry and How Leaders Can Sustain Innovation

The pharmaceutical sector has been under the global spotlight like never before, and further challenges lie ahead. With vaccination programs beginning to level off the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmaceutical companies may once again find themselves in the eye of the storm, as unlocking delayed treatments and paused clinical trials causes healthcare organisations to experience a sudden surge in demand.
Diane Nowell
Aug 26, 2021

Over the last 18 months, the pharmaceutical sector has been under the global spotlight like never before.

The drive to urgently research, test and release life-saving vaccines has heaped further strain on an industry already facing broader pressures from globalisation and technological advances, as well as from the sector-specific demands of healthcare reform, regulatory changes and patent churn.

The pandemic also served to accelerate digital transformation across the industry, as healthcare professionals had to rapidly pivot to new ways of working, at the same time ensuring the continuity of patient diagnosis, care and treatment. Some enforced changes – such as remote working – have had a positive impact, stimulating creative approaches to problem-solving and expanding global communication channels. These pockets of progress should be preserved, even when the current crisis abates.

Further challenges lie ahead, though. With vaccination programs beginning to suppress the number of hospitalisations and deaths from COVID-19, pharmaceutical companies may once again find themselves in the eye of the storm, as unlocking delayed treatments and paused clinical trials causes healthcare organisations to experience a sudden surge in demand.

Innovation and adaptation will be key to overcoming these challenges, with robotics, automation, AI and data analytics continuing to play a frontline role in pharma’s evolution. Many experts agree that successfully leveraging technology could make the difference between surviving and thriving in the coming months and years.

Leading through change

Those tasked with leading innovation will need to find fresh ways to connect potentially remote teams across disciplines, organisations and beyond in the pursuit of solutions that advance efficiencies, simultaneously balancing the demands of R&D with precision and creativity.

And, while tech will underpin and facilitate a raft of new operational methodologies, their successful implementation will ultimately depend on leaders who can respond nimbly to emerging challenges and who understand the importance of building collaborative relationships with more strength and resolve than ever before.

Ashwini Bakshi, Project Management Institute’s (PMI) Managing Director for the Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa regions, believes that the currency of ‘soft skills’ like collaborative leadership, emotional intelligence, innovative mindset and empathy will gain ground as routine tasks become increasingly automated.

‘I see a future in which an ever-higher premium will be placed on those with the ability to collaborate across organisations, lead their teams and think critically as well as creatively,’ says Ashwini. ‘AI and Machine Learning (ML) can accelerate change exponentially. But they will require human agility and collaboration to fulfil their true potential.’

In a rapidly changing landscape, leaders who can navigate change, while driving innovation and empowering others to create and implement new strategies, will outmanoeuvre their less-agile contemporaries.

The rewards of agile innovation

Dr Simon Hayward is CEO of Cirrus and author of The Agile Leader and Connected Leadership. His research demonstrates how leaders can create transformative behavioural and cultural change through agile innovation. It’s an approach that has particular relevance to industries – like pharma – that are in flux.

‘Agile leaders embrace disruption, and bring the outside in,’ comments Simon. ‘They are also enablers – skilled at creating environments where people can collaborate to experiment, learn, and innovate. Often, this requires balancing risk and regulation – something pharmaceutical companies have always had to do in the pursuit of developing new and better solutions that meet customer needs, quickly.’

Chris Hood is Director of Consulting (EMEA) at Advanced Workplace Associates. He agrees that as pharma work becomes simultaneously more urgent and complex, leadership skills will play a bigger role in managing through change – not least in supporting the teams responsible for spearheading new strategies. He warns that while leaders all want the same outcomes, they aren’t yet aligned on the ‘how’.

‘Leaders aren’t embracing the future at the same speed or in the same way. Conservative, traditional leaders are still conservative traditional leaders who tend to favour a return to ‘normal’,’ explains Chris. ‘Others are using the experience as a sling shot into the future. These innovators are also leading by example and grasping the power of technology to accelerate research and invention and being able to plan and drive adoption.’

Chris emphasises the need for leaders to recognise and reward individual contributions to the team effort. ‘The fact that this is a highly specialised and technical world doesn’t in any way diminish the need for leaders to treasure the value that their employees bring and treat them well.’

Flexing into the curve

Centring agility can significantly impact business outcomes. A recent study by PMI reveals the emergence of a successful breed of ‘gymnastic’ enterprises – organisations that flex and pivot in response to challenges – have been able to better adjust to the difficulties of the pandemic and see strong improvements in productivity levels overall.

Ashwini Bakshi explains: ‘Compared to traditional models, we found that gymnastic enterprises were more likely to have high levels of organisational agility – 48 percent versus 27 percent. By recognising the need for agility and digital transformation, as well as systemic and active upskilling of talent, pharmaceutical companies can improve outcomes, while avoiding scope creep, managing down risk, and delivering more projects on time.’

With so many potentially competing priorities, the ability to lead through paradox will be crucial. Leadership and organisational behaviour expert and IE Business School associate Dr Sergey Gorbatov believes it’s a quality that has grown in value during the pandemic when the most effective leaders have been those who have succeeded in uniting physically distant teams.

In Sergey’s view, leadership flexibility and fostering a paradox mindset are key to managing paradoxes well, the best leaders being those who embrace paradoxes without trying to ‘solve’ them.

‘For the Pharma industry this necessarily entails finding stability in flexibility and in deftly navigating the digital and the analogue,’ says Sergey. ‘Pharma, a traditional industry, must reinvent itself to leverage the opportunities of digital and the challenges of increased regulation, while balancing the, often opposing, requirements of innovation and efficiency; continuing to explore new medicines, for example, while optimising those already on the market.’

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has handed pharma what some would regard as a much-needed public image overhaul. The speed at which safe and effective vaccines were released gave organisations like Pfizer and AstraZeneca a welcome PR shot in the arm. The coming months represent a valuable opportunity to capitalise on this goodwill. Companies that meet the challenges with vision and foresight will be those whose leaders act with agility, rigour and generosity.

‘Drug design tends to be a team sport,’ says Chris Hood. ‘L&D initiatives would do well to focus on promoting teamwork as a number-one priority. The pandemic became a litmus test for management’s relationship with their staff. The best companies – now, as ever – will be those led by the best managers of people.’

Diane Nowell

Writer and communications consultant