How Cross-Functional Interactions Can Boost Collaboration

March 11, 2021
Elaine Quilici

Elaine Quilici is Pharmaceutical Executive's Senior Editor. Email her at equilici@mmh.com

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-03-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 3

Open communication gives people the opportunity to explore.

Since the rise of COVID, collaboration in pharma has become a hot topic. Beyond seeing competitors support each other, we’ve heard about increased internal collaboration, too.

One of the greatest tools in creating a collaborative environment is building a cross-functional culture. Developing a deeper understanding of what different departments and co-workers do can increase respect and open lines of communication. Once companies can break out of traditional ways of doing business, including eliminating siloed departments where employees might be territorial about their work and/or geographically separated, a sharing of information and diverse perspectives can occur, spurring a sum greater than its parts.

Rob Etherington, CEO of Clene Nanomedicine, has experienced the industry from a variety of viewpoints, from bigpharma (Pfizer) to startups. “In all those cases, there needs to be a ton of dialogue and activity,” he says.

To promote this, Clene seats its development, marketing, commercial, and finance people all in the same corner of the building, as opposed to clustering them according to job function. Etherington has found that the more the executive and senior leadership teams are side by side and interact, the better they operate.

“Each manager already has a default responsibility to his or her team where they can connect naturally,” says Etherington. “But the degree to which the cross-function, cross-talk, and alignment of two different functional areas occurs side by side benefits a company quite a bit.”

Formal meetings to discuss cross-functional matters are important, but Etherington values informal interactions even more. Most of the interplay, trust-building, and success happens within day-to-day problem-solving, he says.

At Novartis, being curious and fostering an unbossed culture are key elements to creating an environment where people are comfortable reaching out to others and collaborating. Curiosity provides them the impetus to understand others’ strengths, capabilities, and jobs, which leads to collaboration.

Victor Bulto, president of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, points out that curiosity is not only about knowing, but it is the ability of knowing that we don’t know, which is equally important. When Novartis associates don’t have all the answers themselves, the company’s empowering unbossed culture gives them the support they need to seek answers elsewhere.

Once this freedom to interact is achieved, then creating the right structure and cross-functional teams comes next. Anchoring on a common, concrete outcome gives the whole team clarity about what they’re aiming to achieve. A company needs to bring all departments together—from R&D and commercialization to finance and regulatory and everything in between. If there’s no dialogue between these functions, the science may never progress.

“Unfortunately, the translation of great science into patient outcomes has been eroding more and more over time,” says Bulto. “For example, the PCSK9 [inhibitors] for cholesterol lowering have a great clinical profile, but when you see the tangible impact they’re making on patient outcomes, it’s pretty muted compared to what the expectations were.”

In order to minimize this, pharma must look at nonclinical barriers, such as payer suppression, prior authorization, route of administration, out-of-pocket expenses for patients, and adherence. Given the increasing complexity and hyper-specialization of these areas, it’s unreasonable to think that one person or group can have a holistic understanding of everything involved.

“That’s where the need for collaboration stems,” says Bulto. “The answer to most of our complex challenges lies at the intersection of different areas of knowledge. Defining those intersectionalities is key, and the companies that better understand that hire for diversity, build diverse teams, and ensure that different functions mingle formally and informally to achieve better outcomes.”

It’s also important to keep team members accountable for establishing these relationships. “Cultures are defined by one associate at a time and one action at a time,” says Bulto. “Every action, or lack of thereof, sends a strong signal into the ecosystem.”

As a leader, Bulto sets an example in his daily meetings by asking for the opinions of the people who have been silent. This can unearth those contrarian views that the team may be missing.

“IfI don’t exhibit [an effort] with my peers across all the functions, the likelihood of others in the organization doing that is much lower,” says Bulto. “So as leaders, we have a greater impact on each signal and therefore a greater responsibility.”

Elaine Quilici is Pharm Exec’s Senior Editor. She can be reached at equilici@mjhlifesciences.com.

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