‘Design Thinking’: Translating Struggles into Positive Outcomes in Pharma

Problems of various nature will keep coming on business, as long as long as one remains in the business. It doesn’t spare anyone in the organization – from the very top to right up to the very bottom. All is susceptible to problems. Thus, underlying part of all jobs, is one’s ability to solve problems – decisively, as these keep coming.

At the corporate level, problems could be either self-created. For example, when each functional area operates in a silo, at times restricting overall corporate business growth. This may happen not only due to lack of operational synergy, but also for setting incompatible goals. Problems may even arise out of environmental hindrances, or for smarter competitive strategies. Both would adversely impact the company performance, including the possibility of damage to reputation, and at times, even survival of the business. At the individual level, problems at the work place, may affect one’s personal life, work life, career path, key performance areas or even income, among many others.

Looking at the positive aspect of it, as the saying goes, each problem comes as a hidden opportunity, which needs to be harvested. Importantly, in a work environment, the degree of career success of an individual is often associated with the person’s problem-solving ability – in innovative ways. Conversely, one pays a commensurate price for not being able to do so.

In any case, ‘problem solving’ skill is important for all, as much as it is in any business, irrespective of whether the environment around is digital or one involving with lesser of computer technology. This skill is highly necessary for business success. Therefore, the essence of garnering differential competitive edges in any business remains deeply embedded in the quality of problem-solving ability of its people, across various organization functions.

In a broader sense, any innovation – including drug innovation that falls at the high end of the pharmaceutical value chain, is also basically a problem-solving initiative. This encompasses even some of the serendipitous discoveries, such as Viagra for erectile dysfunction. In this article, I shall try to explore the wider applications of a robust process in problem solving – the application of ‘Design Thinking’ in pharma industry.

‘Design Thinking’:

The roots of ‘Design Thinking’ hail back to the mid-1950s with the introduction of the subject, Design Science, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), says US Collective in a paper titled, “What is Design Thinking and how can businesses benefit from it?”

According to MIT Sloan School of Management: “Design thinking is an innovative problem-solving process rooted in a set of skills.”This process has been successfully applied to developing new products and services. It begins with understanding the unmet needs of customers. And from that insight emerges a process for innovation, encompassing concept development, applied creativity, prototyping, and experimentation. With the application of ‘design thinking’ in business, the success rate for any innovation has been seen to improve substantially.

In its analysis, MIT Sloan found that design-driven companies such as Apple, Coca-Cola, IBM, Nike, Procter & Gamble, and Whirlpool have outperformed the S&P 500 over the past 10 years by an accumulated 211 percent in what’s called the Design Value Index—a portfolio of 16 publicly traded companies that integrate design thinking into corporate strategy. According to a 2016 report from the Design Management Institute, this marks the third consecutive year the index has shown an excess of 200% over the S&P 500.

‘Design Thinking’ in pharma:

As we have seen, ‘design thinking’ approach is a human-centric way of problem-solving, understanding the user needs. In the pharma space, it’s problem solving to address its stakeholders’, including patients’ needs and requirements related to health. Thus, for innovative drug marketing, as well, ‘design thinking’ could play a very useful role to make all organizational activities patient-centric – for greater all-round corporate success.

In this context, an article on ‘design thinking’, appeared in the Financial Times on October 12, 2017 reported: “Development of a drug can take around 15 years. But by using the design-thinking process, you could make clinical trials shorter by collecting more real-time data. The manufacturing process and design of packaging could be improved by a better understanding of how drugs are being used. And costs could be reduced, enabling the more expensive drugs to be made more available.”

Four steps of ‘Design Thinking’:

MIT Sloan outlined 4 simple steps in ‘design thinking’ process, which I am summarizing in pharma perspective, as follows:

1.Understand the problem – the source could be both internal or external:

As MIT Sloan professor Steve Eppinger said: “Most people don’t make much of an effort to explore the problem space before exploring the solution space.”

This often happens in pharma too. It’s not very uncommon that looking at just manifestations of problems, a company will look for a solution – quite akin to providing symptomatic relief in the treatment of a disease.

Eppinger further articulated, the mistake that problem solvers usually make ‘is to try and empathize, connecting the stated problem only to their own experiences.’ This falsely leads to the belief that problem solvers completely understand the situation. But the actual problem is always much broader, more nuanced, or quite different from what people originally assume, he underscored.

2. Workout possible solutions – involving those who matter 

3. Prototype these, test and further refine

4. Implement the best possible solution

Professor Eppinger further said, people at work can use ‘design thinking’ not only to design a new product or service, but anytime they’ve got a challenge – a problem to solve. Applying ‘design thinking’ techniques to business problems, pharma companies can offer greater value to customers, and stay relevant.

Pharma companies imbibing ‘design thinking’:

There are examples that some pharma companies are seriously nurturing the concept of ‘design thinking.’ One such an instance was captured in an interview, published in pharmaphorum on May 3, 2018. During this interaction, the head of innovationof the global pharma major – UCB,articulated how his company is creating a culture based around ‘design thinking’, right across the organization.

Acknowledging that pharma is generally accused of being distant from patients that it intends to serve, he explained how UCB is aiming to address this issue byfostering a new patient-centric organizational culture through ‘Design thinking.’

Detailed analysis of the needs of the target audience following this process, and the use of insights thus gained, will also encourage researchers to create appropriate new products. The core idea is to create products that are led by the needs of customers – something that is so critical for pharma companies, particularly in increasingly competitive commercial landscape.  He advised people to be persistent and professional, as they measure and see the results, which has potential to create a snowball effect in the organization.

Conclusion:

Several studies indicate that the companies with a long track record of delivering stakeholder value, are more customer focused. Apparently, pharma players are progressively experiencing that for sustainable business excellence, their customers – including patients, should form the nucleus of corporate business strategy. The same concept should, thereafter, cascade down while developing the game plan for each functional area. There doesn’t seem to be any other viable alternative for the same, right now.

With upswing volatility in the business environment, ‘design thinking’ merits to become a relentless process, particularly for creating assertive employee-mindset to accept the challenge of perpetual change, anytime. Accordingly, a well-structured and equally well-integrated, ongoing feedback data generation mechanism, together with sophisticated analytical tools, supported by other requisite resources, should be put in place.

Ample evidences demonstrate that ‘design thinking’ helps business to stay always in sync with the market, customers and also its employees, for performance excellence. It can provide creative inputs for developing game changing business strategies, meeting customers’ new expectations, or even to reformulate those, which are yielding declining or sub-par outputs. Consequently, it becomes incumbent upon top decision makers to integrate this process into the pharma organizational culture.

Thus, I believe, ‘design thinking’ is an effective way of creative problem solving in a number of situations, having its source both within and outside the organization. It carries a promise of improved all-round corporate achievement – often translatiaing struggles into positive outcomes in the pharma business.

By: Tapan J. Ray   

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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