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(Part 3) Building resilience in the pharma and life sciences sector: a guide for talent leaders

For Parts 1 and Part 2 of this series, visit here - Part 1 and Part 2

Pillars of Resilience 3: Agility 

In the first two instalments in this series, I examined four key pillars of organisational resilience and suggested how to equip life sciences leaders to sustain the first two of these: ‘attitudes’ and ‘beliefs’. This article explores the importance of the third pillar – ‘agility’ –  and proposes ways to ensure senior leaders are ready build this component into their business’s DNA.

An Example: Innovation

The Agile Business Consortium understands the idea of ‘agility’ as ‘a people-centred, organisation-wide capability that enables a business to deliver value to a world characterised by ever-increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.’ This conception acknowledges not only the fact that an organisation must operate in a dynamic and unpredictable world, but that it must deliver value to it. Viewing agility through this lens, it becomes almost inextricable from innovation, since innovation is a manifestation of the behaviours and practices of agility that emphasises tangible outcome delivery. In the Life Sciences, we see innovation in adaptive clinical trial design, allowing the modification of trial parameters to increase efficiency and reduce costs, in the adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning across a whole gamut of subsectors, and in the advancement of drug repurposing.

               Notwithstanding that, much like adaptive decision-making or rapid prototyping, innovation can be considered a concrete manifestation of agility, the interaction between the two is in fact more intricate. Accelerating innovation can in turn improve business agility, in a mutualistic relationship. In a Forbes article from last year, Walt Hearn highlights Netflix as an emblematic case of a business not only surviving the Great Recession of 2007 - 2009, but thriving, by improving overall agility through enhanced innovation. In summary, he proposes three keys to accelerating innovation: harnessing the power of data, optimising R&D, and leveraging partnerships though an open ecosystem approach. Despite the obvious differences between Netflix and a pharmaceutical company, in the Life Sciences, data, R&D, and collaborations are hotbeds of innovation. What is more, with the increasingly blurred boundary between patient and consumer, and increasing need for customer-centric strategy in the Life Sciences, perhaps organisations in the industry could learn a thing or two from a consumer sector company like Netflix. 

Medical technology, doctor use AI robots for diagnosis, care, and increasing accuracy patient treatment in future. Medical research and development innovation technology to improve patient health.


Equipping leadership

Executive education

We established in this series' previous two articles how executive education and development programmes can support individuals in cultivating a leadership mindset, as well as bolstering the growth of executives into roles as inclusive and sustainable leaders. Programmes may likewise focus in particular on organisational agility, be this in management processes or, at a macro level, in business-wide innovation. Courses like Harvard Business School’s Driving Organizational Agility later this month are designed to equip leaders to drive an ‘agile transformation’ within their businesses, regardless of their unique strategic direction. An example of a more industry-tailored programme was the short course, Innovating Health for Tomorrow, offered by INSEAD, which sought to develop participants’ understanding of innovation in Healthcare and encourage a radical rethinking of services. 

Workshops and training

In the first instalment, I suggested how senior leader attendance at workshops (which often facilitate more rapid learning and at a lower cost, compared to executive education programmes) helps to ingrain through a cascading effect organisational belief in continuous learning. Indeed, Matt Tenney, CEO and host of podcast Business Leadership Today, explores the impact of a learning culture on success. In his reflection on the book Learning Agility: The Impact on Recruitment and Retention by Linda S. Gravett and Sheri A. Caldwell, he notes an important message, that among companies experiencing huge growth, there is a connection between the eventual failure of those organisations and ‘their decision to replace “fresh thinking” with an inflexible adherence to the status quo.’ Learning and thereby adopting novel approaches is the bedrock of innovation, which may take the form of products – like organ-on-chip technology – or processes, like robotic automation in the life sciences research laboratory. Keeping abreast of industry developments through workshops and training events can act as a tailwind propelling leadership momentum and agility, whether in times of crisis or stability.

Rotational assignments

Another way to furnish leaders with what they need to build organisational agility is to nurture their personal cognitive agility. Lia DiBello defines ‘cognitive agility’ as ‘the extent to which an individual revises his or her evaluation of a situation in response to data indicating that conditions have changed’. Often overlooked and undervalued, rotational assignments are a valuable tool for refining this capability, whereby employees are assigned temporarily to a different job, function, project, or department, or geography. These assignments are considered 

an integral component of top talent development plans at many corporations [that create] an opportunity for companies to provide their executives with an accelerated learning experience that can lead to demonstrable results for both the executive and the company.’ 

Individuals on assignment must be versatile, adapt quickly to new circumstances, rapidly acquire a breadth of new skills, and deploy prompt problem-solving ability. DiBello elaborates in her chapter in Naturalistic Decision Making:

Given the volatility of markets and the complexity of team decision making in large organisations, we need not be as concerned with the general cognitive ability of today’s executive so much as his or her domain-specific expertise and cognitive agility, which is often associated with the kind of intuitive expertise developed through experience.

One way to provide executives with such experiences is surely through rotational assignments that force them to exercise cognitive agility, that vital capability when it comes to navigating an organisation through upheaval. 

Train Your Brain. Turns a cube and changes the word 'train' to 'brain' on wooden cubes. Dice form the words train and brain. Business and train your brain concept



innovation, leadership, life sciences, talent acquisition, upskilling