Survival of the most agile: How can pharmaceutical companies improve product launches?


To respond to changing market demands, increased competition and the introduction of digital health solutions, pharma companies are launching more products each year. The number of FDA new drug approvals increased by 44% since 2000, along with increases in fast track, accelerated approval, and priority review programs.

Yet, with the pace of change accelerating, these launches aren’t always delivering within their intended time frames – just look at how the coronavirus pandemic disrupted plans for 2020. But what if there was a better way to launch products, one that could adapt with the changing world?

Organisational agility is a way of organising and working shown to drive top-tier financial performance. Agile organisations are delivering higher all-round performance and succeeding over their competitors. In our research, The Evolution of the Agile Organisation, we identified five dimensions of organisational agility that drive market-beating performance in organisations around the world. And we know they can do the same for pharma product launches.

1. Centre on your customer

For a successful launch, you need to create a listening culture that finds the unmet customer need, not just what customers say they want. The reality is that most businesses don’t really know their customers. They’re all too often segmenting by demographics and location instead of appreciating and organising around needs. Outside of pharma, we expect companies like Amazon or Google to understand our consumer behaviour and needs, using data. Whilst there are stricter data privacy regulations in pharma, a wealth of data is still available.

Through natural language processing-powered data mining and pattern detection, it’s possible to interrogate unstructured digital information, such as clinical registries, patient and provider forums and medical information inquiries, to find unmet needs. This would let pharma companies segment customers by their unique unmet needs, develop more targeted launch strategies, and connect the dots to deliver great outcomes through all touchpoints with the customer.

For example, we helped a global pharma company mine patient blogs to inform the launch of a chronic disease product. We learned about how patients really manage their condition, the digital tools they use and their opinions of available therapies. We also uncovered patterns of psychosocial issues as well as the physical symptoms that were traditionally treated, letting us identify behaviour change models that inspired new stimuli for the research study. 

2. Speed up time to value

During our research, 58 per cent of leaders from the most successful organisations agreed that they “invest significant resources and leadership priority in going from initial idea to launched product/service in an ever-shorter timeframe.” They achieve a shorter time to value by continually speeding up their innovation and launch processes, making frequent rounds of incremental adjustments to products and services, mobilising quickly in response to competitor activity, and recognising that the market provides the best testing ground and learning environment.

Of course, pharmaceutical product development is highly regulated, but there’s still significant scope for testing and learning how to improve patient outcomes. For example, in the pre-launch period, you can use feedback loops to drive continuous improvements in how you package the product, provide patient and customer education and support, and engage with your different customers.

Pfizer developed and launched its COVID-19 vaccine in a significantly shorter timeframe than ever before. Instead of moving just one possible vaccine into human testing, four candidates went into phase 1 / 2 trials in parallel. Throughout the process, Pfizer worked closely with regulators, quickly scaled up manufacturing and led unprecedented collaboration with academic and industry experts around the globe. Because of this, a process that typically takes 10 years happened in 10 months with no compromise on safety.

3. Design for simplicity

Integrating people into cross-functional teams that include all the skills and experience needed to deliver customer and organisational value at pace is crucial for pharma’s growing number of product launches. Almost two-thirds of the organisations we surveyed for our research cited “complex organisational structures with too many layers of management” as a barrier to speeding up. They know they need to bring people working on the same products and services together, regardless of their specialist skills, and build a simpler operation around the customers and products.

We’ve seen this work best when companies dedicate people to the launch and establish ways of working that celebrate and enhance cross-functional collaboration. It’s also important to think about all aspects of the product, including digital and service components, and bring the capabilities needed to deliver them into the design, build, test and release phases.

Blueprint Medicines, for example, was standing up a global commercial organisation for a pipeline of targeted cancer and rare disease therapies. We helped them establish the simple systems and structures required to support rapid growth. A key element was prioritising the high-value work that skilled, in-house teams should do, and simplifying by using external support services for lower-value work or surge capacity.

4. Build to evolve

Agile product launches aren’t just about having the right systems, processes and people in place right now, but also anticipating whether they’ll be right in 12-18 months’ time. It’s about building in the kind of forward-looking flexibility that lets you continually reassess your ways of working and reorganise at speed. Yet our research found 63 per cent of business leaders are concerned their company is better at delivering business as usual than the radical transformation they need. It might not be a surprising stat, but it paints a bleak picture as all organisations need to quickly adapt with the changing world.

To help our clients overcome this challenge, we apply our proprietary FutureWorlds™ scenario planning tool to build and stress-test launch approaches, uncovering the best ways to adapt to possible changes. For example, as we helped a biotech company build towards the launch of a rare disease product, we laid the foundation for a future indication and portfolio expansion. We helped them define their core structure and priority work packages for the first indication, with a view of how these would evolve and expand over time.

5. Liberate your people

It’s tempting to try to create an agile way of working by focusing on new tools and methods, without giving enough consideration to people. But agility is about shifting a culture, not just implementing a process. Leading organisations recognise this and focus on creating an environment that encourages their teams to pursue a purpose with greater autonomy. For a pharma company whose purpose is patient focus, this could mean having someone representing the patient in all launch planning discussions or aligning closely with patient advocacy organisations.

Liberating people to work towards a common purpose was crucial in the UK Ventilator Challenge. In March 2020, government modelling predicted the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), already straining under the immense challenges of responding to the coronavirus pandemic, would run out of ventilators in a matter of weeks. We led an emergency response to manufacture and distribute ventilators at unprecedented pace and scale. We engaged manufacturers of existing ventilator devices, along with a host of industry partners with no experience creating ventilators but whose manufacturing, logistics and design expertise proved vital. We put the ventilators through clinical trials, got them approved by the regulator and distributed to hospitals across the country. We did all this in a matter of weeks, when this sort of effort might normally have taken years. In the end, every patient who needed a ventilator got one.

Organisational agility can draw bigger benefits from pharma product launches

Organisational agility is more important than ever. In the run up to product launches, pharma companies face uncertainties over data read-outs, competition, regulatory hurdles, environmental shifts, resource allocation changes and more. By embracing agile ways of working, commercial leaders can maximise the likelihood of launch success and ensure they’re ready to evolve, quickly and continuously, delivering value for their customers and their people.

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