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How aligning dysfunctional marketing teams led to the reinvention of product launches

A major US biotech with annual revenues of over 20 billion dollars, our client was driven by a very clear mission. Take care of patients by transforming the promise of science and biotechnology into therapies with the power to restore health and save lives. It had attracted the brightest stars from from the world’s best learning institutions, prestigious Universities like Yale, Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge. They wanted to contribute and make a difference and because of this, and the company mission built around service to patients, the organisation had real heart.

It had attracted the brightest stars from from the world’s best learning institutions, prestigious Universities like Yale, Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge.

A Need for Cultural Change

The fascinating anomaly however was that this company, connected with a higher purpose and developing amazing products that made a real difference in people’s lives, had highly dysfunctional internal workings which were causing its own staff to suffer. Pioneers of Biotechnology they had been through the heady days of success and in the 1990’s the business had expanded rapidly. First to market with a number of groundbreaking drugs they had successfully listed on the stock exchange and established some of the most lucrative monopolies of all time. But twenty years later this “financially” successful organisation was starting to come under pressure on a number of different fronts. Patents for some of its biggest income earning drugs were about to expire. Americas quantitative easing program had flooded the market with cheap money making the US a fertile ground for BioTech start ups. Their top people were being poached, along with all the critical knowledge and experience they took with them. The government had tightened up on its drug funding allocation. The consolidation of hospitals and clinics looking for group bulk buying discounts was hammering margins and the net result of all the above was delivering the profit expectations of Wall St had become more and more challenging.

In response the company had decided to embark on a radical restructuring and efficiency plan. The strategy was a simple one: “Let’s do it now while things are still good, instead of waiting until this convergence of events really hits us.”

It was wise and forward looking thinking. The radical restructure involved streamlining the organisation and stripping back headcount and layers of management. It reduced its facilities footprint and consolidated production plants while implementing a revised geographic site plan. All part of a calculated strategy to reallocate resources and drive growth, these big structural changes had significant impact on the organisation and its people.

“You’ve been talking about things you’re in control of like you aren’t in control of them. You’ve lost perspective of the fact that you can actually affect change.”

Our journey with this pharmaceutical giant began in Sept 2013 when we met the head of its seven billion dollar Oncology division. It was the largest and most impacted US division and knowing these changes were ahead of them he was exploring how they could best protect themselves. The introduction to The Zone had been made by the head of Sales and Marketing who was being groomed for the top job. He was previously head of the global giants German business and we had worked with him between 2011 and 2013, helping transform it from the worst to the best performing affiliate in Europe. The head of the Oncology Division was interested in talking to The Zone because he knew we had helped the German business deliver an impressive turnaround and results.

A street fighter from New Jersey he had made it into Harvard, graduated with an MBA, became a salesman in the pharmaceutical industry and ultimately worked his way to the top of the company’s Oncology division. Author of a book about how to overcome the victim mentality and win, he was a smart, charismatic leader with a proven track record of success.

We began our engagement by interviewing him and the six executives on his leadership team. The seeds of our first intervention were sewn during the interview process. While talking through the challenges the business was facing he spent a lot of time complaining about what wasn’t working and why he couldn’t get things done. It was classic victim mentality, made even more ironic because it came from a leader who had authored a book specifically about not being a victim.

After the interviews were done the leader and his team assembled in their boardroom for a debrief. Leaning back in his chair, he looked us in the eye and said “Okay, you’ve come all this way, you’ve interviewed my team, we’re paying you all this money, so tell me… What do you think the problem is?” We asked him if he’d read the book The Fish Rots From The Head. He nodded. The problem, we said, is you. “You’ve been talking about things you’re in control of like you aren’t in control of them. You’ve lost perspective of the fact that you can actually affect change.” The street fighter was startled by this and unsure how to respond. The rest of his executive team appeared to be thinking “these consultants won’t last long”. We too were unsure what would happen next because you never know how someone’s going to handle a piece of information of this magnitude.

The rest of his executive team appeared to be thinking “these consultants won’t last long”.

The leader told us he’d never had feedback of this nature before and asked for time to process the fact that he might be part of the problem. He called timeout so he could digest what we’d said and suggested we regroup later that day. To his credit he handled our challenge well as we found out when we caught up with him and his team for dinner that evening. Appreciating the humour involved he told us he could see the irony of writing a book about not being a victim and then behaving like one. He was energised because he could see there was something he could do to create change. “There’s actually a whole lot of stuff that my team and I are in control of” he told us. We could feel that he and the other executives were beginning to see their situation was primarily about the cultural and team dynamic and they had it within their means to get back in the driver’s seat and affect real change. It had been a wake up call but to his credit he got it, and wanted to know what he could do fix things. “What did we do next?” he asked us.

Challenging the Existing Culture

As the leader of this seven billion dollar pharmaceutical company the New Jersey street fighter had to work with over half a dozen major silos like finance, legal, HR, regulatory, marketing, analytics etc and he felt like he had no control of them. The people who ran the silos were at the same pay grade and level as his in terms of power, so he was unable to pull rank to get things to done. Operating under the illusion that he couldn’t affect any change he’d been blaming the cross functional processes where all the silos interacted for the company’s lack of performance and inability to make things happen.

This is a challenge faced by all leaders of large organisation because they are all run in a matrix. As a leader you have to bring together the different parts of your business to get things done. That’s tough because to breakdown silos and create effective cross functional collaboration you have to learn how to work the matrix properly which is all about team dynamics on a cross functional level. Not easy when organisations typically have a low skill level around how to effectively make these dynamics work.

The next step in our journey was to get the executive team together to align on their goals and where they wanted to take the business. The company had an amazing campus with fantastic training facilities, but they were very stark, sterile and dry, doing little to support bringing people together. While organising a room for our executive alignment meeting we had spent time talking to one of the trainers responsible for inducting new staff. She volunteered that they didn’t do enough work on the relationship side “There’s too much information, it’s all process driven and if we had the mandate we would do these inductions in a kinder way” When we asked why she didn’t speak up and get things changed we hit up against the politics of the organisation. The concept of challenging the system was not something she felt was safe, or even possible to attempt. People in the organisation held an idea that they were unable to affect change and we were starting to see this was a company wide phenomenon.

“There’s too much information, it’s all process driven and if we had the mandate we would do these inductions in a kinder way.”

All In It Together

After our tour around the training rooms we decided we needed to create an environment that was more conducive to building team spirit. We raided the hotel we were staying in and took couches, lamps, blankets, rugs, coffee tables and used them to transform a corner of one of the training rooms into a comfortable and relaxing lounge. The next day the executives met us in the foyer. We acted as their guides and welcomed them like new recruits. “Hello, nice to meet you! We’ll be showing you around and giving you a tour of the premises as part of your induction process.” And off we went.

When you step into their training facility and begin the induction process the first thing you notice is all the different messaging. There’s a corporate video playing and a list of values on the hallway wall. Step into the atrium and you’ll find a big plaque with a collection of leadership attributes and on the opposite wall a lengthy credo of success. As you move down the hallway to locate the roster of your plan for the next few weeks you are confronted with the prospect of back to back meetings and seminars, all conducted in a stark, sterile, clinical environment.

We took the executives on this tour and had them stop and read everything in its entirety. We made them pull out their diaries and synch them with the training schedule, pointing out that this would be their home for the next three weeks. At the end of that process they were in overwhelm. “That’s what you’re bringing your new graduates into” we said. This experience really helped them understand how off-putting that whole process was. There was too much information, the environment felt sterile and dry and the whole idea of the induction felt gruelling and brutal. As the significance of this was sinking in we walked them into the room where our chill out lounge was set up. We invited them to sit down and asked how it felt. They smiled, made a few jokes, dropped into the comfy lounge suite and chairs and started speak.” More relaxing…more homely…more like a place I want to spend time…more like family….” And then, when one of the executives said “it feels like we’re “all in it together” the penny dropped and they landed their first big insight.

It was the fundamental idea “that the whole organisation is responsible for getting products to market…not just the commercial division” Sitting in a room and feeling like they were hanging out together had catalysed a realisation that they need to work as a team if they were going to affect real change. On the back of that came their next big insight, the realisation that they had been leading the charge on keeping the business stuck. Their viewpoint about not being able to impact change had rippled through the company and because of the amount of power they collectively held it had impacted the organisation in a major way. Although on that day we also helped them align on their goals and where they wanted to take the business, the big outcome, the one that would lay the foundations for major organisational transformation, was being able to see they had been reacting and resisting instead of standing for a better way. Deciding to change was the first real step, the next was to get into action.

The following day the 20 senior managers of the wider group of cross functional partners joined the session. Every silo was represented, along with the marketing leads for each brand. From the start it was clear they only thing they were united on was the fact that something about the way they were operating wasn’t working. We invited them to talk and encouraged them to get it all on the table. Through the process it became evident everyone had misaligned goals and no one was pulling the same direction. The Regulatory team were all about how to avert risk. The Financial team only cared about saving money. Marketing were heavily campaign focused. People were putting their functional goals ahead of the company goal and using associated power to get things done. There was a lot of unresolved conflict that was taken to the water cooler, a protectionist mentality filtering through the different groups as they worked to represent the agenda of their silo leads. To top it off, even if they did achieve something against the odds, they had nothing built into the business to celebrate their success. Through this process the wider cross functional team could see the extreme level of misalignment they had been operating with and they realised they had all been pulling in a functional direction, not working as a team.

The foundations for successful collaboration were now in place but no one had anticipated just how quickly they would get to road test their new approach.

Vision, Purpose and Culture

The culmination of all the discussion was an agreement that the heads of the silos needed to form a dedicated management team so they could track what was happening in the business, handle dispute escalations and work together to solve the issues that had their cross functional teams caught in ping pong style conflicts and operating in swirl. This team, which comprised marketing, sales, legal, analytics, regulatory, HR, finance, compliance and commercial would meet monthly to discuss hot topics and red flags, unblock the clogged arteries that could negatively impact product launches, and work together to improve systems and processes that were slowing things down.

The heads of each function came together and aligned around a Vision and Purpose for their new business management team (BMT), then defined and aligned around a set of strategic imperatives. These key reference points became the shared priority ahead of their own functional goals and were underpinned by a team philosophy “we win, lose and learn as one”. This bound everyone together and gave team members the sense that they would become a stronger group as they moved forward on the journey.

In addition to this each of the silos created its own Vision, Purpose and Culture, aligned to both the overall company vision, and the vision of their business unit. This included a Marketing Leadership Team (MLT) which comprised the leaders of each Brand and the head of Marketing. They too aligned around a shared vision and purpose for their team along with a clear set of strategic imperatives.

The Brand Leads then repeated this process with each of their teams which comprised the Brand Lead, their senior marketers, plus senior managers from each of the cross functional partners who were representing their business function. They too aligned around a shared vision and purpose which directly related to their Brand/Product, along with a set of tailored strategic imperatives for their team.

Every team Vision and Purpose linked back to the vision and strategy that the BMT had created and again these key reference points became the priority ahead of their own functional goals. Using the Susan Wheelan – Integrative Model of Group Dynamics, we helped each team gain a deeper understand of how a team develops, the stages they go through and what is required to become happy and high performing. To enable them to reach their full potential, spend more time at their best and accelerate through the group development stages we equipped them with new tools and processes that taught them to work with conflict and helped foster greater levels of collaboration.

The team would meet monthly to discuss hot topics and red flags, unblock the clogged arteries that could negatively impact product launches.

After only a few months of working together in this new way our client received some exciting news. FDA approval on an important new drug had been granted much earlier than anticipated. This news was a double edged sword. On the upside early approval meant the drug could get to market early, a direct benefit to patients which could potentially result in the saving of many lives.

On the downside the normal cycle for product launches was around twelve months of long hours and intense pressure that had historically compromised the emotional and physical well being of team members. In addition product launch dates were traditionally geared around two major Pharmacy Product Sales Conferences (PPSC’s) that happened at the same time every year. Early FDA approval meant they were now only six weeks away. Clearly they wouldn’t launch in time to meet the PPSC’s but if they really pushed themselves it was feasible they could reduce the the launch cycle to eight months and get to market four months ahead of schedule. Imagine the reaction when the product team received a directive from the very top of the organisation to launch the product at the upcoming PPSC’s in just six weeks time.

Clearly a request to launch in such a short amount of time was a big ask of the team. With a radically condensed time frame and the additional pressure caused by financial and human resource cutbacks there was the potential for a lot to go wrong. The emotional and physical well being of team members was at stake. There would be temptation to take short cuts that could result in negative legal or regulatory consequences. An overall reduction in the quality of the launch was more than likely. It would be difficult to guarantee buy-in by the sales field.

Perhaps most significantly of all, a launch under these conditions had never been attempted before. The organisation were in a complete unknown.

A Shared Sense of Ownership

The New Jersey street fighter and the head of Sales and Marketing were under no illusions about the scale of the challenge they were about to undertake. They immediately set about breaking down the limiting beliefs around launching that were springing up thick and fast. Their message to the launch team was clear. We’ve all been at work on our relationships, we’ve implemented new tools and refined key processes. We’re ready, we can do this. Their message to the rest of the organisation was equally as simple. “we win, lose and learn as one, so if these guys need help then everyone of us needs to have their backs”.

From the outset this product launch was completely different from anything that had previously happened in the organisation. The shared sense of ownership and alignment to the bigger goals made it easier for Brand Leads to donate people resource. The bigger vision had them operating as one team who were in it together. There were no ongoing escalations or road blocks as the BMT relationships and members commitment to the bigger goal meant any potential blocks, problems or conflicts were quickly addressed and handled. This ensured the overall launch plan stayed on track.

“We win, lose and learn as one, so if these guys need help then everyone of us needs to have their backs.”

Celebrating Together

The Marketing Approval Committee brought different functions together to approve labelling, promotion and advertising so they could comply with FDA regulations and other legal requirements before a product went to market. Historically this had been a dark place overrun with protectionism, risk aversion, politics, power plays and unresolved conflict. Despite being under high pressure to get it right and with a bare minimum of time available every MAC member came to the table with a solution mindset and their attention focused on moving things forward. Despite huge hours and deadline pressures, the team worked together to achieve a common goal and the meetings were high energy, light and fun for those involved.

Throughout this intense period the team used the tools we had given them to stay on track and look after the team’s well being. The head of the product launch, a battle scarred veteran who had been around the traps shared an insight once the product had successfully made it to market.“This is the first time in my career I have been involved in a launch when there has been no fall out, physically or emotionally”.

The program lead described it as a celebration because the team had so much fun together. In her own words she explained:

We could feel this launch was groundbreaking because we were doing so many things differently. Instead of making it technical we made it like a celebration and we had a common language that helped us support each other and stay connected. If someone was struggling people reached out to help them. We realised if you we can’t care about each other then how can we really be true to our mission and care about patients?

The energy of celebration, lightness and fun they had created during the build up to launch, was consciously injected into the launch to the Sales Field. The Sales Field responded with record levels of engagement and their support surpassed the team’s expectations.

Despite the radically reduced launch time frame the product made it to market in record time and went onto become the most successful launch in the organisation’s history. Under intense pressure the launch team had brought out the best in each other and with support from the wider organisation had pulled off a remarkable feat. The leaders acknowledge the outstanding work that was delivered by the team and all those who supported and this new way of operating became the reference point for all product launches moving forward.

Get in touch with us

Liam Forde

+33 643 918499

Corina Roobeck

+44 7500 864008

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