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Is pharma forever in the box?

Published on 08/10/03 at 01:25pm

Most people would agree that in business we need new and compelling ideas. But it always intrigues me that so few come to fruition. We only have to look around us, at therapeutic areas with 10, 12 or even more competitors, to see the same old marketing tools, such as advertising, direct mail, focus groups and even the way companies are organised into departments. There is more of the same than there is new.

Now, we might be able to fool ourselves that this is the optimal way we should operate, that me-too products are profitable, that our tools are the most cost-effective and that our organisational structures are the most efficient. But well only be fooled for a while.

This is actually a reflection of how hard it is to have new ideas and then to implement them, or in other words to change. You only have to read job ads to see how many companies want change management expertise.

Clearly, the search for new ideas has no glib answer, there is no magic bullet. If we are finally to move outside the box, we have to think very deeply about what is keeping us inside it. I have a few observations, but no solutions, although maybe our emphasis on solutions is one of the problems!

The first observation comes from working with a friend who just published his book on the death of marketing. It struck me that the first response of many reviewers to the book, which questions market research and brands, was very defensive. New ideas are confronting, they often challenge the future of very large industries. This defensiveness is natural, but not very helpful. With defensiveness comes attack, which is very often personal and includes ridicule (perhaps we see this on the world political stage as well as in book reviews).

The last response is to claim the ideas are not really new at all, which is a combination of defence and attack. Unfortunately, there is no real critique in the true meaning of the word. Critique is no doubt a skill we all have to learn and practice. This skill of critique, or the lack of it, raises questions about business education and the subsequent cultures it creates.

An article in the most recent issue of Market Leader asks whether the problem lies with the process orientation of business schools. Increasingly, we see business as a series of processes that create a solution or conclusion. Unfortunately, ideas dont fit well into a process orientation. Even a great idea is likely to be rejected because processes are based on quantitative perspectives. New ideas are unfamiliar, and when you ask someone about an unfamiliar new idea they will initially dislike it. Research shows that, as familiarity increases, so does liking and acceptance of the idea. Unfortunately, a process orientation will discard the new idea before it even becomes familiar.

Mix these factors in with a scientific background and rounds of process-oriented management consultants, and it would be very hard for a new idea to make a real impact, especially when errors are discouraged and cost-effectiveness is the key performance measure. This is true of the pharmaceutical industry and many others. In fact, this scenario describes the process, return on investment, efficiency orientation of most managers today.

The upshot of this is doing more of the same and wondering where the next leap forward will come from. Somehow we have to embrace the eclectic to run in parallel with the certainty of processes, to recognise that certainty and uncertainty must co-exist.

So moving outside the box really requires a change in the way we respond to new ideas at a personal level, and change in the whole culture of business education and management perspectives. To put it mildly, this is unlikely to happen quickly, if at all.

In the meantime we will continue to do what we do: relying on me-too products, with me-too marketing that offers nothing for our customers. Inevitably, this means we will have to spend more and more on going to market, rather than on creating value for all stakeholders. Eventually, it may be imperative, like Jack, to get out of the box.

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