Senior leaders and their teams, regardless of industry, remain under intense pressure to innovate.
Take the pharmaceutical industry, for example. The barriers to get new drugs approved grow larger, more complex and more costly. With evolving business models, shrinking patent exclusivity, and patients waiting, any way to get one step closer to a novel therapy addressing unmet medical need is worthy of pursuit. Learning and development professionals can be catalysts for innovation.
To help unlock innovation one must carefully examine the culture and leadership characteristics in cross-functional drug development teams. These small teams manage the company’s resources to move a single potential new drug from the laboratory bench to the patient. How these teams form, set and operationalize a strategy, take risks, learn, handle conflict, reach consensus, and navigate organizational politics plays a part in the ultimate success or failure of the drug.
There is no shortage of literature devoted to leadership, culture and teamwork in the spirit of innovation. An April Harvard Business Review article highlighted the critical nature of leadership in shaping organizational culture and strengthening competitive advantage. In her book Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson details the power teams have to propel organizations forward.
However, study of these fields within pharmaceutical R&D teams is limited. My dissertation research on biopharmaceutical teams and understanding how leadership and organizational and team culture influence innovation could give R&D teams an edge.
Through the qualitative research, four leadership themes emerged that resonated with leaders working to foster team innovation.
- Transformational leadership: Specifically, the ability to provide inspirational motivation, role modeling and intellectual stimulation to teams to paint a compelling vision for the future and motivate others to achieve it.
- Empowerment: Explicitly making team members accountable for project deliverables supports innovation. In the teams studied, empowerment meant recognition that the team and the team leader shared risks, and it was acceptable for team members to think about problems in a new way in order to innovate.
- Team culture: Be aware that curtailing untoward team member behavior and rewarding positive behavior promotes team goal completion and outcomes. A more positive team environment, where relationships, camaraderie and trust are built, also benefits team performance.
- Project management: Thorough understanding of resources, budget, timeline and governance processes, enables them to effectively react to changing internal organizational, governance, policy and procedure changes, or external environmental — study data, competitive landscape, regulatory changes — factors.
Leaders tend to take a more macro view of innovation. It’s defined as primarily transformational or breakthrough in nature and requires rethinking and reinventing of products, segments and markets. On the other hand, team members tend to view innovation as managerial, a function of efficiency and effectiveness. For them, innovation means thinking about a set of parameters such as time, cost and quality and being savvy with those parameters in order to meet goals.
- Learning leaders should help their leaders and teams build skills that drive innovation by:
Building relationships with team leaders and members, and understand their challenges.
- Helping team leaders develop and communicate a shared vision for the future that includes incremental innovations along the way.
- Highlighting conceptual differences in what constitutes innovation to help relieve tensions that might otherwise go unspoken.
- Creating deliberate pathways to inspire successful teams to share their success stories, their failures and how they overcame those failures to strengthen a learning and innovation culture.
Shawn Milheim is head of GCP Quality Culture Programs at Pfizer Inc. Comment below, or email editors@CLOmedia.com.
All contributors to Perspectives are current students or alumni of the PennCLO Program, the University of Pennsylvania’s doctoral program for senior-level talent and learning executives.