A year ago, the World Economic Forum’s annual conference used the theme "The Fourth Industrial Revolution", describing how "we stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another." The Forum’s conference theme for 2017 was "Responsive and Responsible Leadership" and included preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is the final piece in a 3-part series of articles where I talk about how leaders in the Biopharma sector can navigate and lead through the disruption that the Fourth Industrial Revolution brings.
This series shares the insights I’ve gained from talking to a number of HR Directors in the Biopharma sector. A sector that is now experiencing the size of technological revolution previously seen with taxis, travel and TV. Part 1 explored the nature of this sector’s disruption and introduced four VUCA capabilities for handling this disruption. Part 2 focused on the first two of these capabilities (using a Vision to navigate Volatility, and increasing Understanding to handle Uncertainty). This final piece deals with the second two capabilities for ‘using VUCA to handle VUCA’; seeking Clarity to make sense of Complexity, and being Agile to respond to Ambiguity.
Seek clarity to make sense of complexity
Harvard Business Review defines the Complexity of VUCA as situations which have many interconnected parts and variables. Information is available to inform decision-making, but it can be overwhelming to process. This is happening in Biopharma, where patients are exerting greater control than ever before, requiring the sector to master the complexities of consumer behavior. PwC’s recent report 'Getting Closer to the Patient' describes how unique needs lend themselves to unique solutions, and how companies need to think creatively. A solution that works for younger patients may need to be reimagined for the elderly.
So how can Biopharma leaders make sense of this complexity? By having clarity of purpose and clarity of focus, which is supported in Bain’s recent report on 'How Biopharma can Reward Shareholders'. Leaders need to clarify what’s important, and what their company and their functions should ‘lead for’. They need to formulate clearer goals for their teams and continually support their people to honestly assess their current reality in relation to those goals. They need to use that ‘creative tension’ between ‘here’ and ‘there’ to course-correct, being guided by the future they want, not the past they’ve come from.
Be agile to respond to ambiguity
In Ambiguous environments, the relationships between causes and effects are completely unclear. There are no precedents and leaders ‘don’t know what they don’t know’. Perhaps one name that screams ambiguity for Biopharma is President Trump. Having talked a lot about reducing drug prices during his campaign, in a meeting with pharmaceutical executives, President Trump's position was unclear and his public remarks continue to be loaded with conflicting signals.
How can leaders in Biopharma adapt to these constantly changing conditions, staying true to their purpose, values and vision? They can create opportunities for open debate, conflict exploration, and ultimately, learning, for their organisations and teams. They need to develop their team’s capability to be inquiring, to advocate with balance and data, and to have conversations that continually improve performance. They need to give their team’s the mandate to influence across functions, and engage across other organisations and sectors, and learn how others are building an agile mindset. Here’s a source of inspiration from global bank ING, who realised that they are a technology company operating in the financial-services business and asked themselves where they could learn about being a best-in-class technology company. The answer was not other banks, but tech firms.
The ability to learn faster than the competition
Dr Peter Senge is senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, a book identified by Harvard Business Review as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years. Dr Senge espouses that "the only sustainable competitive advantage is an organisation’s ability to learn faster than the competition." That is what agile leaders help their teams to do.
A final word, don’t use VUCA as a crutch
Back in 2014, Harvard Business Review in an effort to discourage us from using the idea of a VUCA world as a crutch for inactivity, gave us a guide to identifying, getting ready for, and responding to events in each of the four VUCA categories. And in Part 1, I quoted General George Casey as saying "to succeed, you must act." I believe that if leaders in Biopharma, or any other disrupted sector, can use VUCA capabilities to handle their VUCA world, they will learn, grow and succeed and ultimately, help their organisations to shift from resisting and reacting to disruption defensively, to leading and shaping disruption for sustainable performance.
And to end this series as I started, at this year’s annual World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Klaus Schwab, the Forum’s Executive Chairman, said "responsive leadership is what is required for multinational organisations to address the issues we face — leadership that is not a symptom of the problems but a solution to those challenges." So that as many leaders, teams and organisations as possible can learn to become and remain fast fish (or elephants).