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Is Agile the Answer to Big Pharma's Digital Revolution?

By Jennifer Mariani

In an age when your daily wants and needs can be delivered by Amazon, we are a culture of instant gratification. This culture has bled into all walks of life, including our medicine. In June of 2018, Amazon bought PillPack out of Cambridge, MA, for $753 million to crack into the $500 billion dollar prescription market. With this acquisition, customers can get meds delivered to their door with automatic refills and 24/7 customer support.

This surge for speed and innovation is forcing large pharma companies to look at all their linear, traditional processes for inefficiencies. Most of these large companies are organized around functional excellence but not value and customer experience. Many are taking notice of other large organizations from different industries reorganizing around value to the customer and having wild success.

Eliassen’s Agile Practice, where we have 10 years of experience implementing Agile across large, global, complex organizations, held a virtual event with leaders from Novartis, Bristol Myers Squibb, UCB, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals. This was designed to bring together like-minded individuals who are looking to be change agents within their organization. We had our Agile Transformation Coach, Jim Damato, facilitate the meeting where attendees dot voted topics of discussion.

The conversation was centered around two questions:

1. How does big Pharma organize around value?

2. How does leadership align on goals across the organization?

Jim Hlavenka, former Head of Agility Enablement, US Neurology, from UCB, was able to bring leadership together and prioritize their work before selecting Agile as the way to solve their problems. Each company had a different approach. Some went with the traditional grassroots approach, starting with the teams piloting Agile, while others had more formal approaches, such as UCB. One attendee talked about training teams through 2 ways of learning: visual and experiential. He travelled to 16 countries, training 120 people with 4 hour sessions. He let them self-organize, do 3 sprints on their own, and then come back to retro. Once this method of learning began to be successful, interest in adopting Agile spread like wildfire. Leadership didn’t have to push Agile onto the teams - they pulled Agile into the teams themselves.

One consistent roadblock was that leadership wasn’t completely buying into Agile. This is a challenge we see across the industry. Leaders know Agile can help their organization improve quality, customer satisfaction, and speed to market, but often times they haven’t received enough training around how they should go about making the shift. Teams often get the most funding for Agile coaching, but that coaching rarely extends to middle and senior management. Leaders need to learn how to be Agile instead of just doing Agile. They need to decentralize decisions and only focus on the overall goal, major blockers to success, and how to remove the impediments. All the team members closest to the work need to make the decisions about the way the work is accomplished.

→"Leaders need to learn how to be Agile instead of just doing Agile."

There also has been a lot of hesitation around pharma adopting Agile because of the highly-regulated space that it is. This topic came up during the event, and Jim Hlavenka from UCB explained the importance of building the compliance component into the sprints. “You need to know what the compliance team will say ‘yes’ to, and get them to be a part of the decisions up front.” Jim had compliance, marketing, regulatory, and data scientists all in the initial meeting around change, as he wanted them all to have a say in what value was to them.

Terry Barnhart from Novartis, previously Pfizer, said something I’ve heard from many Agilists: Agile is a risk mitigation tool, so why wouldn’t a group of scientists who make decisions based on data like this approach? Well, it’s not how they have always done things. In large companies that have been around for a long time, it is hard to break old habits and ways things have always been done. There is also something to be said about Agile amidst this pandemic. The government is running a project called “Operation Warp Speed” to generate 100 million COVID-19 vaccines by January 2021. The government believes the only way this is possible is to work with Agile Teams and cutting-edge technologies to aggressively develop several parallel solutions to every technology problem. There is a group of passionate scientists that are fully transparent and cooperating to manage the design, delivery, manufacturing, and distribution logistics. With the teamwork and cooperation of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense, and the FDA, the drug development cycle will need to change from 5-10 years to 18-24 months.

Timing is everything, and big pharma is being forced to innovate in a world suffering from the coronavirus pandemic. Agile has been around for a long time, but now pharma may need to leverage it to keep up with the market demands and the digital revolution in this industry. The pandemic has forced pharma companies to pivot quickly, resulting in a tremendous amount of interest in Agile in this space. Companies don’t have all the answers yet but are working it out. Eliassen sees pharma companies continue to look for guidance and want to learn how this can help their company improve.

Interested in hearing how we are answering this question and continuing to explore the connections between Agile and biopharma? Read Jim Damato's latest post on "Agile in BioPharma." 

We will be having our third Biopharma virtual event next month and expect to talk more specifics about Agile in this regulated space. Interested in joining the conversation?


Jennifer Mariani

Written by Jennifer Mariani LinkedIn

Jennifer is an Agile Engagement Manager responsible for working closely with change agents for large organizations by presenting success patterns and solutions to achieve more value via the Agile Methodology. She has a history of experience working with multi-billion dollar, Fortune 500 companies, supporting their change in process, culture, and mindset to achieve an environment that is able to respond quickly to change and improve the overall customer experience.

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