Bernard Murray of Osprey Health Consulting says that as we emerge from the Covid pandemic, it is important that global planners re-inject strategic rigour into planning, and in particular reinvigorate customer relationships to ensure that robust customer insight underlies that strategy. 

Like every other sector, pharma has had to adapt to a completely new way of working over the past 18 months.  While the industry has – largely successfully – embraced remote working, there can be no denying that the lack of personal interaction has taken its toll on the quality of strategic planning.

This impact has been felt at two inter-related levels: locally, where it has been much harder to speak with customers; and globally, where it has been much more difficult to bring teams together to form a cohesive, all-embracing strategy.

All of that has been inevitable as companies have striven to keep their staff safe and protected from Covid.  But as we start to emerge from the pandemic, there is a danger that planners have forgotten the importance of human interaction, and how vital it is in creating really effective global strategies.  Too many people have become comfortable with their remote worlds, and there is a pressing need to reinject strategic rigour into planning post-Covid.

Insight on a people level

When global strategic planners embark on creating a new or refined plan, understanding the environment is the first and most critical task.  They need to comprehend where the business will come from both in the current market and in the future; they need to get a grasp on what is changing, and what challenges their product is likely to face in the market; in short, they need to have a good idea what the future is going to look like.

Above all they need to understand stakeholder attitudes and motivations – why they are doing what they are doing right now – and especially how changes in those attitudes and motivations will drive behaviour change.

That insight about the people who are actually making the decisions on how to treat patients, at the grassroots level, is a vital cog in building a robust plan which will stand up at any level – local, regional, or global.  Before Covid, it was taken for granted that planners (via their field forces) had access to such insight through regular interactions with actual customers.

But obtaining that insight during the pandemic has been much more challenging.  Teams and Zoom has offered a link to decision makers, but generally only to the key ones – not the plethora of other influencers who can have a profound effect on the choices that are made in patient treatment: the nurses, secretaries, pharmacists, practice managers and so on.

What has not been possible is what I call the ‘hospital lift’ conversations.  When you do a field-based role, commercial or medical, you go through the door, get in the lift, and you meet people; you go and get a coffee and you get chatting to people in the queue.  These informal, unplanned conversations happen outside the set-piece main meetings and can offer key insights into prescribing behaviour.

A lot of the insights we gain about the motivations and behaviours behind the decisions being made come from sources other than the key decision makers.  And Covid effectively cut off the industry’s access to those people.

Whilst contact has been maintained with the key decision makers (via Teams), that singular and narrow relationship, whilst still useful, can result in a blinkered and one-dimensional insight, lacking the subtleties and nuances which the wider clinical team can provide.

The Global View

If the lack of micro-insights is true at a local level, at global level there is a similar problem.  Not only does all the grassroots insight feed upwards into the global plan, but the same kind of problem exists at regional and global levels.  Those strategic influencers – health economists, for example – have largely been excluded from the global insight gathering for the same reasons.

Compounding this is the issue of there being very limited in-person interaction within the global planning teams themselves.  Whilst virtual events have proved an invaluable tool in gathering cross-functional input and aligning on strategy, they can lack the richness and depth of insight that an in-person meeting can provide through conversations both in and out of formal meeting rooms. Typically, these teams would be multi-disciplinary and multi-regional: the global brand team might have representatives from commercial, medical, research and access as well as marketing, and probably input from five or six key markets, too.

Each of these are in turn gathering insights from their own areas.  If you haven’t got the depth of insight that you would ideally want, that means making assumptions without the full benefit of those insights, and each time you do that there is room for misinterpretation.  If one assumption is even slightly wrong, as you move through the planning process that error can be magnified many times.

Without the insights provided by that grassroots human interaction, companies are having to look more generally on the environment, focussing on competitors, changes in government policy, and so on.  These macro- influencing factors are important, but they can only ever give a partial picture.

In some ways it is easier to do planning if you focus on these ‘big ticket’ items but doing so suggests a lack of strategic rigour; put simply, it is easy to miss something important.

Unfortunately, after 18 months of the pandemic, working this way has to an extent become ingrained in the way that global planning teams undertake strategic planning.  Either they have forgotten the importance of insights gained from more informal personal interactions, or else, if they are relatively new to the industry, they may not yet have had experience of them because the only reality they have known is the Covid one.

Either way, there is a real danger that this way of thinking is leading to a lack of rigour in strategic planning, and it’s crucial that as we emerge from Covid restrictions and seek to find a ‘new normal’ way of working, that we prioritise reintroducing that rigour back into the planning process.

Challenging assumptions

Of course, there is not going to be one single day on which we all agree that Covid is over, and that we can immediately step back into the way we were doing things before the pandemic.  There will be significant geographical variations in how quickly we emerge into the post-Covid world, and even within distinct geographies, that process will be phased and gradual.

Even if we accept that there is a need to reconnect with our customers on a personal level so that we can start to challenge the assumptions we have been working with during the pandemic, we are all going to have to rebuild the confidence to be able to meet face-to-face and relearn the social subtleties inherent in such informal and human interactions.

And it is fanciful to think that we will ever be able to go right back to where we were at the end of 2019.  Communicating via Teams and Zoom has become ingrained.  Finance directors love it, because of the immense savings in travel and hotel bills brought about by brand teams not having to travel to meetings.  Certainly, there are big efficiencies to be gained by eliminating unnecessary travel.

But ignoring the benefits of collaborating ‘in the room’ will lead to strategic planning teams missing out on huge swathes of customer insight, not to mention the kind of ideas generation which can only happen when humans can see the whites of each other’s eyes.

This last point is important.  Think about the organic process of ideas creation in a ‘real world’ meeting, the ability to scribble on post-It notes and follow the thread of the creative process, going back where necessary and re-ordering your thoughts; now compare this with the sanitary, simultaneously typed notes made during a Teams meeting.  Sometimes you need the grubbiness and the simplicity of low-tech processes to bring out the best results.

Teams and Zoom can make things seem easier: outputs can be shared more quickly, and it’s all neat and tidy.  But that very tidiness can make it more difficult to challenge assumptions as you go along, and that is almost always where the good ideas in any planning meeting come from.

With the lack of nuanced, informal, human insights, too many strategic planning teams are relying on dry data.  There’s nothing wrong with data, of course, it’s very useful for telling you where you are at right now, and even for giving hints about what might happen in the future.  But if you fail to combine that data with quality customer insights, you will only ever have a partial picture of what is driving behaviour.

Getting back through doors

So practically, how do we start to get back through doors, to bring teams together, to gather more insights into our customers, to inject that missing rigour back into the strategic planning process?  And how can planning teams, who have become used to doing everything virtually, find the impetus to collaborate better and work face-to-face once again?

The single most important step is for key account and medical scientific liaison leads to start getting out of the door and venturing out into their customers’ world.  As soon as it becomes possible, they need to start convening real-life meetings, inviting a range of people involved in their business.

Of course, there are likely to be restrictions on such meetings for some time to come, so that is something we must work with.  So rather than large-scale meetings, these may be more limited in scale: for example, involving GP practices within one locality, or bringing together people working in one particular therapy area within a single hospital to a neutral venue.

Even in these situations, it is vital that these meetings are truly multi-disciplinary.  So, the GP practice meeting needs to involve not just the doctors, but practice managers, nurses and so on; likewise, a hospital therapy area meeting (such as diabetes), needs to bring together not just the consultant(s), but nurses, registrars, junior and senior doctors, and hospital pharmacists as well.

This may not quite be achievable yet.  A health service which has felt itself under siege for many long months will be understandably reluctant to throw open the doors.  But if we leave it until the restrictions finally come down to even start planning for such meetings, there will be further delay that strategic planning teams can ill afford.

Such an approach cannot come from one pharma company alone, either.  The industry as a whole has to work together to remind clinicians of the benefits of being able to gain deeper insights from their world – insights which will lead to a better understanding within pharma of the changes in attitudes and behaviours amongst both doctors and patients, and which will in turn lead to the industry being able to respond to those changes and provide the best possible solutions as we move into a post-Covid world.

In short, we all need to make a persuasive case that pharma is also in business for the benefit of patients, and that the industry’s wish to reopen that in-person dialogue with healthcare professionals is in everyone’s interests.

Rigour needs human interaction

Once better-quality customer insights start flowing through, resulting from the reinvigoration of interaction on the ground, the groundwork for injecting a new level of rigour into the strategic planning process will have been done.  But this alone will not guarantee that this new rigour will lead to more accurate, more robust, and better-quality planning.

For that to happen, planning teams must also accept the need to emerge from the Covid bunker and find a way of working effectively within the ‘new normal’.

Because strategic planning is generally a global enterprise, this won’t happen all at once.  Inevitably some parts of the world will see relaxation of Covid restrictions at a much greater pace than others where infection rates remain high or where there is simply an aversion to risk.  But global teams can use this to their advantage, learning best practice in emerging from lockdown and sharing this with regions where this has yet to happen.

Whatever the pace of release from the pandemic, and however much the past 18 months has changed the world and the way we work for ever, strategic planners do need to start challenging the inevitable assumptions that they have been working with in the absence of rich, personal, and comprehensive customer insight.

As the pandemic starts to recede and the opportunities to communicate to clinicians in person start to open up, it will be vital that we start to gather those valuable insights on how the world has changed from the wide range of people involved, and that we feed these into the planning process.

Only then can the question of how the pharma industry can help meet the evolving needs of all those delivering healthcare be answered with enhanced depth and breadth, ensuring that we can be confident of creating and delivering strategies which will deliver better outcomes for all – clinicians, the industry, and above all patients.