By Hal Craig, founder, Trout Creek Consulting, LLC
It’s Q1 2020 and you have an uneasy sense that your company might fall behind in achieving its 2020 goals. This concern may be based on an actual change — whether that’s a slight or material drop in monthly revenue or some other metric — or a hunch that bad results are approaching based on office chatter, delayed responses from colleagues and outsourced partners, or news stories. You’re wondering What can I do? and When should I start?
Let’s start with the When. Many businesses, especially in FDA-regulated industries, can’t turn on a dime. Or more correctly, while they can turn badly on a dime (e.g., with poor clinical results or a product quality issue), substantive positive change takes time to implement given resource, regulatory, contracting, financial, product development, technology transfer, and other constraints and requirements. Given the time to make positive change and that it’s already Q1 2020, the point of no return for making needed changes to achieve 2020 goals is fast approaching. Procrastination and shyness about understanding and approaching problems are not typically your friends.
Now let’s tackle the What with a few questions I’ve used in organizations that I’ve led or advised.
First, you need to understand what the problems might be and their magnitude. Here are some problem defining questions:
- What about X (insert topic — could be a specific project or product name, CTM campaign, NDA filing, etc.) keeps you awake at night and why? This is a great question to ask colleagues at all levels in your company and at your outsourced partners. Some people will give you what they perceive to be the politically safe answer, but others will tell it like it is. Keep in mind that your goal isn’t to blame people or issue directives; it is to understand what is really happening so (a) you can determine if there is a problem and its magnitude and (b) you and your team can quickly find ways to mitigate the problem. You’ll also want to hear multiple perspectives to filter out functional/department/program biases.
- What are the top three to five things we need to get right to achieve our goals? At the corporate, business unit, functional/department, and initiative/program/product levels, people should know what they need to get right by when for their area to be successful. This might include patient recruitment, selecting a technology path, launching a new marketing initiative to fill excess capacity, quickly bringing an alternative supplier on-stream, or progressing initiatives with limited travel. As an executive presenting to your board, analysts and investors, and at internal town hall meetings, you should know the top things needed for success, too. Once someone has identified the top three to five things (or however many there are), follow-up questions include How are we doing against each of these? and, if the answer is “not well,” What seems to be the problem or roadblock?
Once you’ve determined the nature of the problems, the objective is to find ways to achieve the goals. Sometimes this is a relatively straightforward process of reprioritizing resources and assigning more technical operations talent to process scale-up efforts or preparing validation protocols. At other times, the process may be more complicated and may involve technology transfer to a better CDMO; finding, qualifying, and helping a food or cosmetic ingredient supplier enter the excipient business; or finding a new lead development candidate.
Here are two more questions to help you answer What to do:
- What are the top ten things we can do to achieve our goals? This question works at many levels — corporate (the goals being sales, EPS, EBITDA, development milestones, etc.), business unit (similar goals to corporate level), project team (project related goals), etc. It’s important to be creative and let everything be on the table. Once the list of ideas is generated, the ideas can be evaluated and prioritized based on impact, timing, cost, feasibility, and other parameters. Imagine how hopeful you’ll feel when you combine the lists of your various business units, departments, and project teams and are looking at 20, 50, or 100 ideas to pursue!
There is a caveat though: Depending on the nature of the problems, this activity can get intense because there will be some changed priorities; restructuring may also be an option. Ideas that involve a fast-paced move into new areas — such as, Can we launch a new product on another continent in the next six months? — can also be both intense and exhilarating at the same time. It’s also important to stress that “failure is not an option” in many or most cases. Jobs, bonuses, generous benefits and perks, and investor support are based on achieving milestones. Now, for companies formed around one product, a clinical or regulatory approval failure may mean the end. But other problems are survivable and can lead to stronger companies.
- What would the new management do? This is a variant of Intel President Andrew Grove’s 1980s question “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what would he do?” For Intel, the answer to this question was to shift from memory chips to microprocessors. When the situation is difficult, and there’s a lot of emotion, inside the box thinking, and inertia, What would the new management do? is a great question to reset thinking to a blank canvas. It stimulates outside the box thinking with an objective look at the issues, opportunities, and solutions facing the company. It’s also a not so subtle reminder that if things don’t improve soon, or at the very least if the board doesn’t soon see a rational plan to improve things, there will be new management.
There will always be issues that your company has to anticipate or respond to. Some will be tragic (e.g., public health crisis, supplier manufacturing incident), some will involve other externalities (e.g., tariffs, supplier quality issue), and some will be internal (e.g., unexpected technology development challenges, poor execution). Needless procrastination, whether that is failing to develop contingencies or waiting until a small problem becomes a big problem before taking action, typically means that success will be harder to achieve and farther off.
Asking the right questions to identify, quantify, and solve problems can move success closer. Asking the right questions soon enough may allow your company to hit its goals for this year and be well positioned for following years.
About The Author:
Hal Craig is the founder of Trout Creek Consulting, LLC, a strategy and life science supply chain consultancy focused on solving CMC, outsourcing, technical, and strategic challenges. Clients include venture-backed, family-owned, private equity-owned, and publicly traded companies. Craig serves on the Physical Sciences Investment Advisory Committee of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and has a BSChE from the University of California, Berkeley and an MBA from the University of Michigan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about Craig and Trout Creek Consulting is available at https://www.linkedin.com/in/halcraig and www.troutcreekconsulting.com. Trout Creek Consulting, LLC has been a member of Life Sciences Pennsylvania for over 10 years.