<iframe src="https://www.googletagmanager.com/ns.html?id=GTM-NWS6QFW" height="0" width="0" style="display:none;visibility:hidden">

Back to Blog Posts »

Tactics for Agile in Biopharma Research & Development

By EG Life Sciences

As we have provided several blog posts and hosted Lean Coffees about the potential of Agile in Biopharma, a theme has emerged – the crucial role of communication in implementing Agile. We have discussed how to work with individual team members, from scientists who may be skeptical of Agile practices, to team members who are feeling "transparency anxiety," to leaders who haven't entirely bought in to the project.

To explore even further how best to work with people when bringing Agile and Biopharma together, we invited John Harman, Senior Director of Product Management at Strateos, to our latest Lean Coffee. He has 30 years of experience in new technology and drug discovery, and he developed his interest in Lean following drastic personnel reorganizations, which led to his work bringing Agile practices to Biopharma R and D. Over time, he learned that the success of Agile hinges on whether or not team members – especially leadership -- are on board with change.

A Toolbox for Transformation

Harman began by describing how he encourages humans to change, which starts with "toolbox buckets" covering Science, Lean Principles, Agile Practice, and Organizational Psychology. When it comes to science, it is important to speak with data and also prepare people to plan for when things go differently from what they expected.

A Toolbox for Transformation

Two of Harman's "toolbox buckets" are interconnected. First, Lean principles ensure that you have a customer value chain, which, as Harman stated, "forces you to identify the customer." Not only do Lean principles benefit the customer, but they also benefit you, as the next Lean principle discourages waste, like the toil of meetings and making slide presentations. Agile practices take those principles a step further with incremental value delivery and continuous improvement.

After opening the organizational psychology toolbox, Harman advocated for transparency "upward as well as downward in an organization," but one tool in this kit particularly resonated with the Lean Coffee audience -- "placing bets." If a person is in a mindset of "placing bets," they realize that they always have more than one option when faced with a decision. Even if you think that you have no choice, you are still deciding between choosing to do something and choosing not to do it. Harman explained, "We don't often think about what are the long-term consequences of not making a change at a given point in time." Unless you point it out, a person may not realize that not taking action can have as much of an impact as taking action.

What Works for Leadership

To illustrate how he uses his toolbox, Harman shared what works and what doesn't for leadership. Leaders will commit to transformation for a variety of reasons, ranging from politics to fear of missing out, but many of them will default to the status quo. To avoid this situation, Harman advised spending time up front with leaders and using the tool of speaking with data, which can help them better understand the risk of doing something versus the risk of not doing it. He said, "If someone is not a change agent, they will move toward risk aversion as a primary motivator."

"If someone is not a change agent, they will move toward risk aversion as a primary motivator." -- John Harman

What doesn't work is defining the milestones and deliverables for the leader and then expecting them to come back and approve everything after you are finished. Harman recommended that leadership stay involved and part of the solution throughout; otherwise, a leader could undo your efforts or simply ignore them.

For more detail, view what Harman has to say about how to achieve stakeholder buy-in.

Tactics for Agile in BioPharma R&D from Jennifer MacDonald on Vimeo.

Harman then asked the group what they felt did and didn't work when collaborating with leadership, and several people noted that leaders either think they are change agents, but they really aren't, they simply don't understand what it means for an organization to be Agile, or they aren't willing to learn.

Jen Mariani of Eliassen Group added that some leaders "tend to delegate the responsibility of any transformation or Agile program to somebody within the organization that doesn't necessarily have the cachet or really the power within the organization to make the changes needed." The leaders themselves need to be educated, not just on Agile but also the part they have to play in its implementation.

One way to overcome that hurdle, Mariani recommended, is to eliminate the term "Agile" from the conversation and begin using the practices rather than the jargon. This suggestion aligns with Bob Ellis's advice to avoid "terminology toil" and speak in the language of the audience.

Another Eliassen Group team member, Jim Damato, provided his own example of how well a project went when a vice president understood what he was trying to accomplish: "He knew what I needed to do, made the space, and it went great." For him, the project was more successful not because he started with Agile but because he started by helping leadership grasp the overall goals.

Where to Start With Digital Transformation

Even if everyone, from leadership to those handling the day-to-day work, realizes the need for digital transformation to be more effective, Harman admitted that they often don't know where to start. One of the best ways to determine a starting point is to focus on outcomes rather than Agile practices, and that goes back to the customer value chain. Harman suggested, though, that instead of analyzing the current value chain, it is better to envision the future customer value chain, which provides "more clarity on what you are actually delivering to your customer." Once the team can imagine the customer value chain they would like to have, they can make a roadmap by walking backwards from the future state to the present.

Another factor in determining where to start is how much you want to change. Harman stated that some teams want to jump right into rebuilding the whole organization's infrastructure, which means it can take years to deliver value. Other teams want to tackle the low-hanging fruits, which is great for the teams, but it doesn't move the transformation forward. Harman recommended striking a balance with increment planning: "I like to balance the amount of customer delivery improvements or changes with the technology debt. Then when you move closer to the center, then obviously it's more concise."

The Lean Coffee group agreed that this approach can help speed up projects. Damato added that Harman's approach to focus on the future value chain may help "get the waiting down because the waiting is really what seems to be killing everything in Biopharma." Harman added that one of the big questions to ask when determining where to start is "Is that really a problem? Do I care at the end of the day?" Asking those questions helps put you in the "placing bets" mindset rather than a default pattern of risk aversion.

"The waiting is really what seems to be killing everything in Biopharma." -- Jim Damato

Working With Stakeholders

If you have leadership buy-in and you are able to work backwards to the right starting point, you will still need to rally the troops. Harman provided his advice for keeping them engaged, and it all starts with encouraging them to share their processes and pain points with each other. This goes beyond simply asking them to share their pain points because they may not be able to articulate those issues. Instead, Harman recommended really listening to stakeholders when speaking with them and asking them to share metrics: "You need to identify their pain points by the way they talk about things when they're describing their processes."

Afterwards, Harman advised bringing all the stakeholders back to share your vision of the future state to give them a sense of ownership in the process. By bringing in stakeholders at all levels, including managers and practitioners, you will be more effective than if you only gather data from managers. Otherwise, you may miss vital information. It's even better if you go back to the stakeholders as soon as possible to avoid having to play catch-up. And, as the Lean Coffee discussion showed, bringing stakeholders aboard becomes even easier if you've put the time in with leadership up front because leadership can help the project move forward, and they can take action on anything that a transparent Agile process brings to the surface.


Before you go, keep the following tips in mind:

  • When talking about transformation, bring your whole toolbox: Science, Lean Principles, Agile Practice, and Organizational Psychology
  • Encourage team members to think in terms of "placing bets" and to remember that not making a decision has as much of an impact as making one
  • Keep leaders involved from the start; telling them what you've done, no matter how well planned, will not work
  • Consider removing Agile-related terms from the conversation so team members don't get tripped up on the jargon
  • Determine a starting point by focusing on the future value chain and working backward
  • Really listen when speaking with stakeholders to uncover their true pain points


An Agile approach – whether or not you choose to call it Agile – can help overcome the delays that often arise in complex projects, which is especially crucial in the Biopharma field. Our experts have been helping clients drive continuous improvement in the delivery of value for patients and health care providers. Learn more about our Agile Consulting approach and our Agile and Biopharma experience, and if you are interested in being part of the Agile and Biopharma conversation, join one of our future Lean Coffees or Lunch and Learns.

Working With You

The best thought leadership involves working with our peers and other experts to find out what our clients need and how we can help. We accomplish this through our Lean Coffee sessions.

Join our Lean Coffee discussions!

Subscribe to our Blog