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5 Lessons Learned from Embracing Agile in Commercial Launch


If the effects of COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent variants have taught commercial executives in the pharma and biotech industry anything, it is that their commercial operating models need to quickly adapt to a new world where going digital is essential to engage with customers and their patients. For companies that aimed to commercialize their first drug in 2020, one thing that they didn't have was the luxury of time.

Our recent work with growing biotech and digital therapeutics companies that are trying to bring life-saving drugs and services to the market, has been no exception. To cope, we have found, companies need to create and expand agile practices to be able to adapt to changing environment quickly and achieve their product or service launch goals.

Agile methodologies provide an alternative to hierarchical, siloed and sequential way of managing activities and have the potential to reduce set-up time for new business or digital capabilities 3-4 folds.

Thanks to Agile, some of the companies we worked with were able to operate in a highly dynamic environment, foster collaboration across different functions and develop the required commercial, data, digital and analytics capabilities in record time.

Based on our experience of living through launch journeys in the “new normal”, we have identified 5 key practices that are essential for biotech leaders who want to unlock Agile's transformative potential.

Use launch readiness reviews to align priorities

Launch readiness review meetings are common in biotech commercial organizations to keep track of the status of internal and agency activities in support of commercialization. Using a broader mandate, however, launch readiness can be used to address key strategic challenges quickly and align key functions.

For example, in leading organizations, c-suite executives such as chief commercial officer and leaders of supply chain and compliance organizations were regularly attending the launch readiness reviews. As a result, key launch issues were discussed and addressed directly in meetings rather than a longer, more bureaucratic alternative, namely cross departmental meetings. The presence of the leaders of the organization in such reviews and their intimate involvement in capability forming also helped raise the stature of launch and related efforts got adequate attention within the organization for execution.

Think imperatives, not functions or projects

Often, launch-related projects are defined around a specific final work product within the walls of an organizational function (for example: brand website project within marketing). We have found the use of "strategic imperatives" to be a better way of organizing projects and teams.

For example, a customer engagement and experience team composed of members from marketing, data, digital, and IT departments can have the broad mandate of developing the capabilities they think is necessary to drive customer engagement growth and satisfaction.

In highly uncertain environments when circumstances quickly change, a benefit of this approach is that teams won't end up locked-in with a final expected outcome that doesn't advance launch readiness. The cross-functional nature of teams shaped around strategic imperatives also helps them to cut through the bureaucracies and siloed functional walls and get work done faster.

Develop shorter and more iterative improvement cycles

Agile teams generally develop and refine components of the expected solution or outcome in short iterative processes that are called ”sprints.” In our experience, shorter sprints (such as weekly ones) bring better visibility early on when it comes to underlying issues that a team might face.

Additionally, short sprints create a rhythm for agile teams and create muscle memory to deliver something ”new or better” every week. This in turn leads to a culture of continuous improvement and progress. The agile teams should be organized around delivery of a business outcome as described above.

Balance control and autonomy through plug and play design

There is value in providing autonomy and a broad mandate to agile teams. But in order to ensure that all the pieces function as a whole, work in projects needs to be defined using common standards for data, processes and systems.

For example, teams working on digitally engaging the customers should have broad flexibility as long as they make sure they are using the same customer reference data as in-person or virtual interactions by the field force.

Adherence to such common standards results in significant synergies when commercial analytics teams combine data from digital and traditional interactions with customers to develop integrated insights: faster “time to insight” will lead to higher visibility on propensity of customers to act based on certain promotional tactics and better resource allocation.

Lean on digital

COVID-19 has forced many companies to adopt digital technologies externally to engage with their customers. However, maturity of such technologies to manage internal collaboration remains relatively low. There is huge potential, however, in embedding these technologies as part of routine activities performed by commercial teams.

The simple act of having shared launch plans and performance measurement dashboards that are accessible by all key stakeholders can bring tremendous visibility about the launch readiness progress and key issues.

Taking this one step further, activities can be assigned to specific workstream owners and automatic alerts can be sent to them close to due dates. Team members can quickly form problem solving chat groups within a ”launch readiness app” on their smartphones to interact with one another.

While such practices have been mainstream in industries such as high-tech, biotech and pharma players still have some catching up to do. But by following these principles, the results can be highly rewarding.

Lou Pillai is the founder of Ulivmo and most recently, he was the Head of Data and Digital at Immunomedics (acquired by Gilead). Ehsan Ehsani is a director of consulting at CGI and leader of commercial launch and M&A services within the healthcare and life sciences sector.

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