Pharmaceutical companies: 3 mindset shifts to deal with a drying pipeline

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By Srini Pillay, M.D., CEO of NeuroBusiness Group

Research and development has been an ongoing challenge for pharmaceutical companies. The difficulty behind new ideas, project management, drug prices, and the slowness and uncertainty of new product development are just some external and internal roadblocks that pharmaceutical leaders and employees face.

External pressure occurs in the form of increased scrutiny. Although drugs constitute only 17 percent of healthcare costs, they are targets for pricing pressures and shrinking margins. For instance, in 2017, 21 out of 75 healthcare bills were passed. Most of these bills required manufacturers to report a drug’s cost and explain price changes. Although the request for transparency is ethically justifiable, many companies now experience increased surveillance and review pressures that show no signs of relenting soon.

Aside from these external pressures, companies also feel an internal push to maintain their viability. In doing so, they must develop their own product pipelines. However, the needed funding is often plagued by the uncertainty of whether a drug in development will prove to be helpful. After all, no one is looking to risk millions of dollars on a drug that has a 5 percent success rate. When a company’s top line doesn’t grow, it is difficult to fund everything else in its early pipeline.

In this milieu of devaluation, targeting, and internal pressures, mobilizing capital to fund pharmaceutical innovation is a puzzling dilemma.


Finding the pipeline silver lining

It’s hard enough to come up with new ideas, and pharmaceutical companies have to balance this with the demoralization they feel from the public’s judgement and lack of understanding. This scrutiny easily counterbalances the appreciation that people feel when their cancer is treated or their blood pressure is under control.

Understandably, leaders in the pharmaceutical industry are constantly challenged with tall expectations and heavy uncertainty. While these factors are unlikely to change, the mindsets in which leaders meet these challenges can be.

Rather than simply being a “soft” variable, according to Scott Keller and Colin Price, the highest leverage point for a manager’s time and energy is an employee’s mindset. Having the right mindset increases transformational success, further proving that focusing and strengthening mindsets in the ever-changing pharmaceutical world is a seemingly vague yet important pre-strategy step. Fortunately, recent scientific research elucidates why this is the case and what leaders can do about it.


3 mindset shifts to increase R&D pipelines

The mindset strategies below, when taken seriously, can significantly impact the strategic thinking and problem-solving needed to transform a drying pipeline into a thriving one

1. The rhythmic mindset
Peak innovation performance relies on the brain being prepared to think and execute at breakneck speeds and power. To do this, the brain must be primed like a well-oiled machine. The ideal brain has to switch between focus and unfocus in order to not stay engaged all day. However, switching to unfocus is not simply about taking a break. It can build intelligent cognitive rest into the organizational culture so employees can refuel their brains through high-quality resting increments.

For instance, if you want your organization’s creative team members to be on top of their game, incorporate unfocused periods throughout the workday. Suggest that a tired employee go for a walk, preferably outside and on a curvy path. This will reboot his or her brain and increase creativity. Numerous other unfocus techniques can help recharge the brain during the course of the day. In fact, five to 15 minutes of napping will give people one to three hours of increased clarity.

With enhanced clarity and creativity, innovative pharmaceutical companies are likely to function at a higher level and better tackle tricky R&D situations.

2. Analogical thinking
If you can’t make headway when brainstorming R&D strategies, use analogical thinking to help you develop new ideas instead. Thinking in terms of analogies will help you find new approaches that target different types of long-lasting pipelines that your company wants and needs.

For example, at your next meeting, transform the idea of a pipeline that needs to enter different stages of drug trials into a box of chocolates that needs to be sampled. If that analogy is considered, it will activate the frontopolar cortex of the brain, a region that maps similarities between ideas and objects. The more seemingly different the analogy, the greater the potential for innovation.

In turn, this strategy might make you consider the following analogical equivalents: chocolate boxes (grouped products), chocolate wrappers (delivery vehicles), or chocolate fillings (isomers of current molecules). Don’t hesitate to use analogies to shake up meetings and brainstorming workflows.

3. The aroused mindset
When pharmaceutical leaders hear that global engagement is at an all-time low of 13 percent, some might mistakenly believe their own companies are exempt. But with work overload, along with insecurities and fears that people have about the pace of change, it is important to think of diverse ways to engage people when developing a new pipeline.

One key concept in neuroscience involves the sublime. Unlike beauty, which simply stimulates the pleasure centers in the brain, the sublime activates arousal centers that produce a kind of awe akin to being swept off your feet.

For the innovation of a drug pipeline, ask a strategic mindset question that triggers the sublime: “What project might inspire us to truly focus on R&D?” Here, a project that solves a pressing issue that also goes hand in hand with drug development might help. For example, eliminating domestic violence while developing an antidepressant for PTSD could be a win-win, and the goal is so high that it has the potential to inspire awe.

Mindset shifts are impactful tools that pharmaceutical leaders can learn and embed into their organizations. Although pressures to create new drugs and efficiently supply R&D pipelines have reached new heights, taking a step back to look inward can make the needed difference to stand out and survive in the volatile pharmaceutical ecosystem.


About the author

Srini Pillay, M.D., is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and the award-winning author of numerous books, including “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind,” “Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear,” and “Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders.” He also serves as an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Program at Harvard Business School.