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How to Develop a Strategic Thinking System

By October 3, 2017November 1st, 2020Bonus Focus

Picture the scene: Your organization is preparing for an important product launch. The new product will be the second entry in the therapeutic class with the same mechanism of action, but clinical trials have shown slightly greater efficacy and an equivalent safety profile. The brand team’s exhaustive market research has helped them define the product’s positioning and strategy. The field sales leadership team is readying their sales specialists to target the appropriate physician specialties. The training team has built a sound blended learning platform to educate the sales force on the product, disease state and competitors. The account management group has researched the plans to target once the launch commences. Everything’s perfect. Or, is it?

The product launches, but the brand strategy failed to consider the impact of the amount of in-office time it would take physicians and nurses to administer the product, which has resulted in low uptake. Sales specialists knew how important in-office time would be but never had the opportunity to share that insight prior to launch. They have difficulty gaining access to key physicians because there are multiple reps from their company calling on the same office with haphazard coordination. The account management group grows frustrated at the step edits being added to the product and the lack of pull through by the field force in the few accounts where the product has been added. Six months post-launch, the product is 70 percent behind forecast and two other competitive products are expected to launch in the next 3-6 months.

If your group has experienced a similar situation, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Having worked with six of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies in the world, I’ve seen firsthand what can happen when there’s a lack of organizational strategic thinking. Ironically, the entire situation described above could have been avoided by bringing together representatives from each of the groups to engage in strategy conversations. And no, we’re not talking about the dog-and-pony show, monologue presentations where ten minutes is set aside for input that is asked for, but not really wanted or used. Meaningful strategy conversations occur when people across functions are brought together to exchange insights about the key business issues using a proven strategic thinking system.

Real learning only occurs when there’s an interactive exchange of insights that creates new value. Unfortunately, when it comes to setting strategic direction on the commercial side of the business, senior leaders often fail to see the opportunity to bring together the different functional teams in a true, learning environment around strategy. My research with 880 managers from the marketing, sales and account management functions has found that only 35 percent believe the different functional groups in their company are all aware of each other’s strategies and how they align. Making matters worse, only 37 percent of managers believe there is a universal definition and consistent understanding of strategy throughout their company.

This internal dysfunction creates an opportunity for life sciences trainers to add real value to the business. By providing a strategic thinking system to facilitate and frame the strategy conversations amongst and between their various internal customers in marketing, sales and account management, you can directly impact the success of product launches, new RX’s, total RX’s and products’ formulary status.

A strategic thinking system enables managers and sales specialists to adopt a common language for strategy and a comprehensive framework for thinking about and discussing the key business issues. The three disciplines in the Deep Dive Strategic Thinking System are captured in the following three A’s:

1. Acumen: Generating strategic insights that create new value and lead to advantage.
2. Allocation: Configuring resources (time, talent, budget) by making trade-offs and focusing on the areas that will drive the greatest value.
3. Action: Creating a one-page visual plan for the brand, sales geography or account that identifies the top 3-5 goals, objectives, strategies, tactics and metrics.

The strategic thinking system can also be used to assess the strategic thinking capabilities of team members. As the graphic shows, managers can sometimes find themselves in a strategic “no-man’s land” where they are lacking the ability to generate new value, effectively allocate resources or prioritize their actions.

Within each of these three areas, there are numerous tools and techniques that can be customized for each functional area to help them set strategic direction and effectively coordinate actions with one another. Since the foundational principles and terminology in the strategic thinking system is the same, a common language and approach to the business can then permeate the entire organization, from the commercial side to the clinical side, and from the field up through the C-Suite.

To get started, bring managers from intact teams or different functional groups together and begin with the following questions:

1. What are the new insights you’ve uncovered in the following four areas: market, customers, competitors and company?
2. How should we change the way we allocate resources to take advantage of these insights?
3. Which activities should we prioritize and which activities should we deprioritize?

With all the changes in the pharmaceutical landscape including healthcare reform, dwindling access to customers, and reimbursement shifts to name just a few, managers in all areas must be equipped with the mental agility to think strategically and engage in strategy conversations on a regular basis. As the Greek poet Archilochus wrote, “We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.”

Rich Horwath is the CEO of the Strategic Thinking Institute and author of Deep Dive: The Proven Method for Building Strategy. Email Rich at

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