Three differently colored syringes launching off into space

Agile Transformation in Pharma: How to launch more successfully in a fast-changing environment

With the new decade, we witness the rise of artificial intelligence in pharma. In fact, already 40 pharma and biotech companies are using artificial intelligence in drug discovery, redefining the way how scientist develop new drugs, tackle disease, and more. AI will increasingly advance and accelerate pharma launches by identifying new molecules, finding the right patients for clinical trials, increasing drug adherence in clinical trials, and interpreting clinical trial data in a more sophisticated manner, just to name a few opportunities. But while developing cycles become shorter and drug discovery more effective, various sources report that over 66% of all pharma launches still fail to meet internal expectations¹.

Why do most drug launches still fail in meeting internal expectations?

In recent years, we at Homburg & Partner accompanied several product launches across all indications, from orphan to blockbuster drugs. By analyzing typical launch pitfalls, we identified two dominant factors that impede launch success.

Lack of speed: Slow-moving bureaucracies in turbulent times

Although the nature of a launch is unsteady and alternating in terms of EMA approval timelines, competitive launch timelines and new market insights, most pharma companies are still operating with hierarchical, slow moving internal bureaucracies. While cross-functional, dedicated launch teams across all affiliates already exist, the launch plan is still structured into functional processes.

With this traditional process-oriented approach, decisions are often based on customer research conducted two- or three years pre-launch. In today’s fast changing marketplaces with increasing competition, HCP, payer, and patient expectations can change quickly, which makes it necessary to track real-time customer feedback.

Lack of customer centricity: Solution design not catered to stakeholder needs

Although a majority of pharma companies has understood the need to tailor their USP towards multiple stakeholders with different interests, customer insights are generated only by spot checks, and often delayed. Additionally, through a lack of cross-functional collaboration in real practice, customer insights from Medical, Commercial and Market Access functions are seldomly aligned or updated, leading to ineffective tool design and value communication.

Equally important, internal tools are often not tailored towards workforce needs. Marketing tactics and tools are planned by management teams during brand planning workshops, without reflecting workforce needs sufficiently. This top-down controlled tool design frequently leads to an ineffective Go-to-Market and to field teams even neglecting tools due to overwhelming complexity or a lack of value added for their daily business.

Fast, well-planned, successful: Six steps towards increasing agility and boosting launch performance

To accomplish a fast response time and comprehensive customer centricity, pharma companies that outperform their peers conducted six step changes.

Six steps towards agile transformation in Pharma

1 | From globally centralized launch plans to global cornerstones with localized strategy

A one-size-fits-all approach does not work in a competitive environment with diverse stakeholders: The needs of a German HCP can be quite different than the needs of an Italian HCP. Therefore, a localization of strategic efforts is required to cater individual needs. In a previous project, we observed that the hurdles to increase sales uptake of a new oncology drug in year one after launch were differing between countries. In Germany a critical success factor was reimbursement. Therefore, clear communication that funding is guaranteed was critical.

In other countries the major hurdle was to position the new drug as superior towards standard of care therapies. Therefore, communication was focused on the added value of the therapy. Based on this observation, we recommend that global headquarters should set strategic cornerstones while leaving full autonomy to the local affiliates when it comes to adapting this strategy and initiatives to their country specifics.

2 | From functional-structured launch plan to deliverable-structured launch plan

Typically, responsibility in launch projects is structured by function. As a result, in case of delays or missed deliverables specific functions were blamed – even though they often rely on input of other functions to achieve their objective. The result is a negative team atmosphere, contra-productive to a successful launch.

By structuring the launch plan per deliverable, cross-functional collaboration is fostered and an atmosphere of mutual commitment is created, realizing synergies and improving output. Additionally, a cross-functional, deliverable-structured launch plan creates extra transparency along the critical project path. In the traditional approach, functions often don’t see the urgency in delivering their activities as pre-requisite for launch progress.

For instance, at the start of a project one deliverable was named “Business Intelligence to conduct market research on HCP prescription drivers” and clearly assigned to the function Business Intelligence. However, critical input from Medical and Commercial was delayed prior to the research, leading to an inacceptable lead time of several weeks.

By restructuring the deliverable into a sprint named “HCP research about prescription drivers” and including commercial, medical and business intelligence into it, the launch team ensured that all relevant input was taken into account before market research started within a fraction of time. Thus, a deliverable-structured launch plan improves collaboration as well as the outcome of individual activities.

3 | From functions control budget to launch team autonomy

In a traditional setup, budgets for launch activities are pre-planned and allocated to functions. This approach has some drawbacks. Activities cannot always be assigned to single functions, leading to unnecessary discussions and a siloed mindset. Moreover, quick and needed market activities reacting on changing market conditions, like competitor research, require short-term approval processes and flexible budgets.

By establishing an overarching launch budget that can be unbureaucratically tapped into by all functions, a collaborative atmosphere of empowerment is created, resulting in accelerated processes and higher engagement. Novartis for example took a radical approach towards individual autonomy by starting the “Unboss your company” initiative that aims to break down hierarchies and redefines the role of managers as coaches rather than bosses, ensuring that budget gets allocated more effectively. A dedicated cross-functional launch budget that is not entirely pre-planned ensures a high flexibility, engagement of individuals and a fast-response time against unforeseen events.

4 | From process-oriented working approach to agile working approach in sprints

Agile working methods have the potential to increase the speed of product development by 22% and increase employee engagement by fostering creativity and collaboration of different functions². In structuring the launch plan into agile deliverables, teams work highly iterative in sprints of few weeks. Minimum Viable Products like message testing are exposed to the customer early on to gather and incorporate feedback.

Every team needs two crucial components. A product owner who is the face towards the customer and a process facilitator, often called “scrum master”. The product owner ensures customer needs are met and defines what to do, so that team members have high autonomy in processing the “how”. The scrum master ensures that the agile principles are followed.

This approach not only speeds up the development but also ensures that the final output meets the customer’s expectations. For example, one of our projects was driven by eight different workstreams, one of them experimenting with agile working methods. One deliverable for each workstream was the production of an explanation video. The video created by the agile workstream was perceived as best by all other teams, leading to them introducing agile methods in their future work as well.

5 | From static sequenced customer insights to dynamic iterative customer insights with prototyping

Understanding customer needs and applying customer centricity is not only the key for launch success, but a key requirement for every organization operating in a highly competitive environment. A major reason why most launches still fail to meet internal expectations is static customer insight generation.

Often, global headquarters start market research on patient journeys and HCP prescription drivers 2-3 years prior launch and local affiliates one year later. In today’s fast changing marketplaces, these insights are already outdated at launch. Additionally, global research is often insufficient to meet country-specifics due to limited market knowledge and sample size.

Best practices illustrate how pharma companies can generate real-time customer insights to systematically generate cross-functional account data, for instance by Medical Science Liaison Manager visits, one year before launch. In addition, beta testing and prototyping, for example when developing a drug value story, helps to meet customer needs more efficiently.

6 | From top-down and controlled workforce tool design to local empowerment and bottom-up tool design around field force needs

Quite often, managers observe that digital tools don’t achieve the expected results. Without asking their field force, tools like eDetails are designed to support sales rep visits with digital content. Especially marketeers aim to put all insights and ideas they have into the tools and consequently observe that sales reps are either overwhelmed or don’t find it very useful.

At a leading pharma company in specialty care, eDetail usage rate was initially below 20%. Then, managers introduced an agile eDetail revision and used design thinking interviews to better understand the need of their sales reps. Ultimately, they reduced a lot of functionalities and tailored the digital content around actual sales force needs, yielding an eDetail usage rate of 73%.

In another project example, we applied an agile design thinking approach to create a multichannel toolbox for the salesforce. Design thinking interviews with internal sales reps set the basis for an all-time high tool usage rate and internal commitment generating a product uptake of over 12% over budget forecast during the first year.

Launch teams are perfectly suited to scale agile innovation methods across the entire organization

The great value add of agile working principles to the entire organization has been emphasized often enough across business and academic contexts. Nevertheless, a majority of pharma companies struggles to implement agile working squads. One main reason is that pharma companies can’t leverage internal success stories. Mostly, managers experiment with agile methods in external innovation hubs, venture capital or acquired digital health start-ups. However, they won’t transfer their agile mindset and working methods into the organization as they stay in their own microcosm.

Thus, an agile launch lab is the perfect spot to launch and scale agile methods across the entire organization. The launch team can experiment with agile working methods as outlined above and learn what works and what doesn’t work for them. After experiencing the benefits of agile through their launch journey, launch team members can carry their agile learnings and ideas back into their everyday work.

Based on their launch success, they will shape and increase the performance of the entire organization. In one project we accompanied, the former launch team transferred their agile launch experience and created a cross-functional, agile multichannel department. The new way of working boosted creativity, resulting in implementing a quiz taxi prototype to conduct Key Opinion Leader interviews instead of traditional interviews at conferences and yielded YoY 16% increased unit growth of a mature oncology drug.


1 | Evaluate Pharma 2013: McKinsey & Company Analysis | Simon Kucher & Partners (2014): Global Pricing Study
2 | Homburg & Partner project reference | HBR (2018): Agile at Scale

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Christian Zuberer
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