Solving the Perpetual Pilot Problem

While working at several leading biopharmaceutical and medical device companies over the past 20 years, I participated in hundreds of pitches from suppliers of all types. It was sometimes frustrating for me to sit through their presentations without intervening to help improve the offering, the value story, and the marketing communications.

Now that’s all changed. I recently left pharma to help create an agency designed to support both suppliers that are trying to break into life sciences and well-established ones needing to improve the way they go to market. So I’m writing this regular column for suppliers as an “insider,” to shed light on how pharma’s commercial teams operate, gather information and make decisions about projects, partners, and investments. This first column is about the “perpetual pilot problem” in which suppliers of digital solutions too often find themselves.

“Fast Track” Is Getting Faster

Why is it that so many life sciences companies start lots of pilot programs—particularly digital ones—yet never bring them to scale to realize significant value? I often joke that this is the only industry that calls a product “new” for six months, and the Internet “new” for 20 years. But like it or not, digital programs are still not a core competency or priority for most life sciences companies. People, processes, and incentives are all aligned to the core medicine and device businesses, and to the traditional partners and tactics that are viewed as most supportive of those businesses.

In contrast, digital is not yet a mature contributor to a company’s earnings, so the patience that life sciences companies display in developing, testing, and launching a new medicine or device is lacking when it comes to digital health initiatives. The standards of proof for digital are simply different—and shorter in terms of time—than standards for a company’s core products and the tactics that have traditionally supported sales of those products.

That brings us to the main reason brand marketers love pilots: They tend to offer topline results quickly, and speed is a major factor if one’s job tenure is measured in months, not years. And that “need for speed” is the current reality in most pharmaceutical marketing departments. Human nature teaches us that most employees prefer to work on projects that will get them promoted, and promotion requires being positively recognized in a short period of time.

Therefore, a marketer’s goal is to move to the next role as soon as possible because that’s how a company measures him and determines the future trajectory of his career. So, he focuses on programs that show results in the near term. An alternative is to systematically analyze which programs in an innovation portfolio are truly successful, then scale and improve them over the long haul. Taking time to scale an individual program simply doesn’t align with the current talent management approach of most biopharmas in the same way that pilots do, so marketers focus on convenient, check-the-innovation-box activities that provide some learning and lively stories for job interviews. Given that scenario, one can easily see why pilots persist, and scaling happens so infrequently.

Scale Means a Series of Wins

Is all hope lost for a supplier that must move beyond a pilot to be successful? Absolutely not! The key to success is to help the marketer—and her successors—create and then showcase a series of incremental, short term “wins” instead of a promise of greater success at some vague future date. The contributions of your solutions must be broken down into bite-sized successes that can be measured and then promoted within the organization—within a few months. Creating the path to success, with “promotable” milestones along the way, may be as important as the ultimate scaled solution in today’s career-conscious environment.

These are some tips for suppliers to create both a successful pilot and a program that is likely to scale:

Start with a solution design and functionality that embraces modularity. By breaking your program into a series of deliverables you can create a series of successes. One win becomes many, and a successor in the role can build upon—rather than scrap—a successful pilot.

Start with a single market or therapeutic area but create the potential for easy transfer across boundaries. Companies look for opportunities to share standards and best practices across their global networks, yet marketers want to make a “mark” for themselves. Plan for customization that lets a marketer use developed standards while showcasing their local market or therapeutic area knowledge.

Ensure senior leaders are aware of the program and its potential for contributions at scale. Senior management success depends on meeting earnings targets instead of demonstrating program wins. Create an expectation of scale from senior management, and your program becomes a “must-have” instead of last year’s novelty.

Life sciences companies are expert at scaling some things, such as procurement. Use that to your advantage by involving those internal partners. Alliances with support functions provide marketers an easier path to adoption for new-to-the-world solutions, so gain their buy-in instead of treating them like enemies.

Try this modular, milestone approach with your solutions and watch your pilots turn into a series of accomplishments on the path to scaled success. In future columns, I’ll explore other ways that life sciences suppliers can better understand how biopharmaceutical commercial teams operate, and how you can properly position and communicate the value of your products and services to the life sciences community.

  • Joe Shields

    Joe Shields is a healthcare industry veteran, innovative marketer, and digital pioneer. He is Co-founder and President of Health Accelerators, a Think Patients company focused on business-to-business marketing services for suppliers to life sciences companies.


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