Big Pharma Transformation

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6th April 2021 by Steve Holyer

Image © 2018 Josef Kruckenberg (@dasjo). Thanks Josef

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We're launching a new cohort of our Open Space Leadership course, for facilitators, event organisers and other community leaders. Limited 🐧 Early Bird 🐧 pricing stil available. Will you apply to join us?

Are you ready to hold their space?

Sometime in 2019, I spent several months consulting and coaching one of the largest pharma companies in the world.

Pharma Co. called me to help late-stage drug development divisions get new life-changing molecules, or drug treatments, more effectively to the patients who need them. I worked with a group producing and trialing a potential cure for a deadly form of breast cancer that doesn't respond to any current treatments.

They asked for help becoming more lean and agile. They had lots of historical data to clearly indicate they require 10-years to bring a molecule all the way through late-stage development. After a potentially therapeutic molecule is approved for human trials, they require 10-years until the life-changing treatments are proven effective, approved by health regulatory agencies and in mass production being delivered. (Of course not all molecules are proven effective, nor are they all approved. In those cases failing fast leads to finding different and better results quicker.)

Not everyone believed drug development could be leaner and more agile. But everyone knew if you found an effective way to bring molecules through the third-stage of development faster—if they could safely reduce the time for third-stage development from 10 years to 5 years (or even 2 years)—you would immediately be saving and improving a huge number of lives.

(Remember, this was before the current world-wide pandemic when some companies did demonstrate they can bring a new vaccine to market and get it jabbed into people's arms in record time. This is true as long as conditions and enabling constraints—like prior scientific work, the drive to do it and sometimes Dolly Parton—are all in place.)

I met with the director of one of the molecule divisions on the first day of the consulting job. They called each of these directors the "CEO of a molecule" because they were each responsible for one large working group that would act as a business unit to bring a successful drug molecule through third-stage development to patients. Combined the 60-150 or so people making up the division could do almost everything required to bring a molecule to patients. The people included scientists, trial managers, statisticians, logistics managers, and marketing folk.

But the "CEO" had a problem. He told me his biggest challenge—and the main thing slowing the creation and distribution of life-changing medicines—was their working meetings. These meetings he said were necessary and also time-consuming and largely ineffective.

He told me, in these very words, the 4 main manifestations of this problem that we must solve were:

  • They couldn't get the right people to attend important meetings. That is the people who could solve the problems didn't show up.

(I feel sure they were busy solving other problems elsewhere. These were not people to loaf around, but the "CEO" felt they weren't showing up fully for this important work.)

  • The wrong people kept showing up. These were people who couldn't solve the problem but felt the need to be at a meeting.
  • The meetings never started when they should, and also never ended when they should ... or they simply never ended. Sure they stopped the meeting, but nothing was resolved or actually finished.
  • And finally, what happened in these meetings, he told me, was just wrong. Ineffective. Not what they needed.

I could hardly believe my ears.

I confirmed he'd never heard of Open Space Technology, and he was not testing me. That's how he already identified his biggest problems. This was his root cause for cost overruns, and the biggest thing blocking the division from changing and saving lives.

Did you hear the same thing I heard?

I heard him demanding we start holding Open Space events (even if he didn't know what he was demanding).

4 Principles of Open Space Technology

  • Whoever comes is the right people.
  • It starts when it starts.
  • It ends when it ends, or when it's over it's over.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could.

Unsurprisingly, some parts of this humongous multi-national Pharma Co had already used Open Space Technology successfully, but there was no knowledge or experience of it where I was consulting.

The very concept of Open Space was something many people here thought could never work.

So, it took several weeks of influencing, socialising, and cheerleading before we could begin inviting people to a first division-wide Open Space.

The "CEO of the molecule" invited everyone to gather offsite to figure out how they would safely get their breast cancer "cure" to the oncologists and patients who desperately needed it in less than 10-years saving nearly every life that would have been lost to this form of breast cancer over a decade.

That Open Space was a life-changing experience for everyone involved. That one event showed the entire molecule group a new  way of working.  Of course that was just one step of the journey. But it was a big step. And we saw again Open Space does work.


I will tell you another time of several things I discovered and learned about Open Space Leadership from this experience.

I'm not trying to leave you hanging here. But for a short attention blog post this has already gotten very long.

I wrote this part of the story because I want to add another true and recent story to the collection of true Open Space stories. This is how we discover the life-changing magic of open space.

I'd already completed the first online Open Space Leadership workshop that Deb created to offer over Coaching Cocktails (back in 2015). I'd already developed, honed and mastered my practice of holding spaces by holding space for many OST events. And I'd also started teaching the course before my Pharma Co experience. That means when the Pharma Co was ready to start, I was ready to hold their space too.

Whoever comes is the right people — and that includes us.


Read more about our Open Space Leadership training workshops.  For each cohort we invite 6 keen facilitators, coaches and leader to make a deep intensive dive to learn how to really hold space that always matters.

You'll learn to recognise when the conditions are right for open space. You'll learn to lightly hold space for the enabling constraints in beneficial and open ways to get real life-changing results. You'll learn to work with sponsors to create open space invitations.

You’ll also lean how to really hold space in a distributed remote environment. (Hint: There are many things you must consider with remote open space, and you'll also discover that truly holding remote open space is a lot different than what conventional facilitation practices and wisdom tell you it must be.)

Signup to join our next cohort. When you do this work, you’ll be ready to hold their space.

Read More

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photo ©2018 Josef Dabernig (@dasjo) Zürich Switzerland
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