The Truth Doesn't Hurt: Why It Pays to Be Straight in Pharma

March 2, 2015
Mike Straw

Mike Straw is CEO of Achieve Breakthrough, an award-winning consultancy that provides organizations with new ways of thinking and acting to deliver better business and people performance. Achieve has worked with a number of pharmaceutical companies including Novartis, Roche, Sanofi and AstraZeneca.

The Jim Carrey film Liar Liar showed us the comic consequences of always telling the truth. What if people in business did the same? Mike Straw considers what the impact on pharma would be.


A surge of FDA approvals and a record $250bn worth of pharma deals in 2014 could be the first early signs that th

e sector is about to hit a period of sustained growth.   But in order to achieve its growth potential, there will be a string of new projects, programmes, mergers and acquisitions, and undoubtedly even more pressure to have new drugs approved. All of this will combine to put even more pressure on the people in the business. From the boardroom to the shop floor, more will be asked of individuals to take on new responsibilities, hit even more deadlines, make things happen even faster with more innovation and squeeze even more hours into their working day. As a result the probability of deadlines being missed, delays in drug approval and product launches increases.   Will people be open with each other about such problems?  I fear not.  One of the hardest things in business is to admit ‘failure and things are not going to plan’ or that a target won’t be met. For the people involved a common cycle will occur: hope the problem will go away; put up with it; deny it; eventually wake up to it; panic; cancel/modify the project; blame the market, competition, economy - everyone but yourself.  

So, when faced with a delay or overrun, why aren’t people just straight with one another?

The simple fact is that it is human nature to edit the truth - people will not be straight to avoid embarrassment, exaggerate their accomplishments and cover up wrongdoing. We also edit the truth to spare people’s feelings and to get out of doing things we don’t want to do. Companies can also, at worst, bend the truth to mislead competitors and their customers, or to gain an advantage and sell more products.   In the past year alone the truth - or lack of it - has been a key component in a number of wider industry business scandals. From the UK's supermarket giant Tesco allegedly falsifying profits to Apple, who are being sued for misrepresenting the amount of storage on iPhones and iPads, the truth - or the bending of it - is a key issue in business today.   A study by the University of Massachusetts found that 60 per cent of adults could not have a 10-minute conversation without lying at least once. The same study found that 40 per cent of people lie on their résumés and a staggering 90 per cent of those looking for a date online lie on their profiles.   I believe that in pharma and in business in general, outright lying is actually quite rare, and editing the truth often stems from good intentions. Human beings, almost by design, don’t want to let other people down. That’s especially true of people at work with their bosses! Humans also do a lot of hoping - optimistically trying to believe that something will turn out alright.   The net result of this is that people at work often don’t tell the whole truth. They are not straight with each other. They almost fool themselves that something is under control, on track, on budget etc - and then perpetuate that belief in what they tell others.  And of course, once you have started down that path, you have to keep it going.   The cost of this to business is that it can take a long time for the truth to emerge. Leadership doesn’t get to problems quickly, because people have not been straight about them. By the time a solution is found, it’s often too late. The project has to be cancelled or shelved or targets won’t be met…and the company is forced to blame external factors such as the market, the economy, or the weather on its poor performance.  

The impact on reporting performance

As major delays set in, the natural reaction is for the business to turn to the finance function or FD to understand why their forecasts haven’t been met - challenging their mechanisms for predicting performance. This then leaves the FD in the unenviable position of having to report to its investors that their targets for growth have not been achieved - but at the same time remain buoyant that they are driving ambition in the organisation so that their future forecasts can be hit - leaving the business (and the FD) with a significant reputational and financial headache.   To avoid this chain reaction, I believe it’s essential companies foster a culture where it’s OK to acknowledge and talk about setbacks. The more ambitious a company is, by definition the more setbacks it will encounter. So businesses have to be straight about them. There should be no shame about admitting a target may not be met or a problem has been encountered. In fact, that is part of the process of overcoming it.   Pharma needs to constantly aim for breakthroughs in their business - ways to take performance, productivity, sales, engagement etc to new levels.  But you can’t have a breakthrough without encountering setbacks or breakdowns.  And when you do, these need to be embraced and openly acknowledged and discussed - not hidden through half-truths or self-justifications.  So honesty is an essential driver of breakthrough performance.   Having a genuinely open and honest culture will reduce the amount of ‘truth editing’ that goes on within organizations. It will ultimately lead to better performance and better results. The straighter people are with each other, the better they will work together. And that’s no lie.  

Mike Straw, CEO of Achieve Breakthrough (Bath, UK), a consultancy providing organizations with new ways of thinking and acting to deliver better business and people performance. 

 

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