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Mar 15, 2013 (Vol. 33, No. 6)

Improving Partnering for Better Science Leadership

Find Out How to Ensure Success After the Deal Is Made

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    William Ronco, Ph.D.

    Effective partnering is essential for success in science mergers, acquisitions, alliances, and between departments, but partnering results often fall short. Managing partnering as if it were a project and better partnering meetings significantly improve partnering results.

    “We just got acquired by a giant pharma company. They say they’re going to leave us alone. They just want to partner with us to learn about how we model our cells.”

    “We’re partnering also, with a company like ours that focuses on Phase II arthritis drug development. I can’t imagine how we’ll keep track of who owns what.”

    “And I can’t imagine how cross-company partnering could work. We can’t partner in our own company with the other departments that are supposed to work with us.”

    In 2013, working in biotech and pharma means working with partnering. It’s not possible to read an industry publication or view a biotech association web site without encountering news about the latest deals, the most recent merger and alliance agreements.

    We partner across companies because few if any large companies attempt to do discovery or Phase I work. We partner in alliances because we hope/expect that pooling our efforts will benefit us all. We partner between departments in our own organizations because our organizations are flat, decentralized. They lack the kind of formal hierarchy that works well for banks and insurance companies but would stifle the free-flowing communications and thinking necessary for drug development.

  • Partnering Problems

    Our focus on partnering deals masks the problems we encounter when we attempt to translate the deals into everyday work. Two thirds of general business mergers and acquisitions fail, the large literature on the subject tells us. We lack similar accessible data on our own industry, and on alliance and interdepartmental partnering performance, because of our stringent intellectual property practices. However, our everyday experience strongly suggests that our alliances and interdepartmental partnering encounter similar difficulties.

    We encounter a host of puzzling, troubling partnering problems. The same large company that initially told us they would “leave us alone” now wants to make “minor” changes to our procedures that we know will have major negative impacts. No one in the large organization can tell us who can answer our questions. People we haven’t met before appear at our labs or engage us in conference calls where they demand to know why they haven’t received information we didn’t know they needed.

    Most troubling, and often most pointed, are the conflicts we encounter among departments attempting to partner in our own organization. We appreciate that quality standards must be high, but must our QA auditors come after us with such a vengeance? Do they really need everything they’re asking for? Do they really expect us to drop everything we’re doing just to meet their artificial deadlines and emergencies?

  • Perfect Your Partnering Meetings

    Though daunting, these problems are understandable. People can’t tell us who’s responsible in our partner organizations because they don’t know. In fact, we probably can’t answer such questions about our own organization. In science, all of our organizations need that kind of ambiguity in order to keep the fragile process of inquiry alive.

    Effective partnering meetings provide a forum to manage the partnering process and increase partnering success. Meetings should be scheduled closely enough together to address issues and track action items, but separated enough so participants can implement plans. Meetings must involve the key players, usually a vertical cross-section in each organization—senior managers to give general direction, mid-levels to do the work, and grass-roots people to provide a reality check and hands-on insights.

    Because partnering meetings build an infrastructure engaging two groups, they need an agenda that works intelligently on four tasks:

    Taking stock. The whole group devises and tracks measures that accurately, objectively assess the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities of partnering performance.

    Building trust. The personality profile tools our HR departments use for leadership training—Myers Briggs, DISC, Personalysis, FIRO-B, etc.—all provide valuable insight to help people build the trust needed to bring organizational agreements to life.

    Clarifying goals. Disagreements about partnering practices often trace back to differing interpretations of partnering goals. Every partnering group needs to discuss, write, and sign off on a set of 6–10 performance and communications goals they agree to aim for in order to make the partnering successful.

    Implementing processes. Partnering groups ask what 3–4 key processes must work smoothly in order to achieve their partnering goals. They usually plan and implement processes for responding to changes, resolving conflicts and ensuring that all members of the group give and receive necessary information when and in the appropriate form required.

    One word provides the criterion for assessing partnering meeting effectiveness: specificity. It’s nice if meeting discussions are interesting and participants are polite. It’s most likely for meetings to have lasting results if discussions are specific and result in detailed lists of who will do what when.

  • Manage Partnering As If It Were a Project

    Initially encountering these ideas, many people express surprise that such extensive effort is necessary to ensure partnering success. When they compare the effort they’ve given their own, troubled partnering, they realize that they’ve severely neglected it, expecting it to somehow unfold on its own.

    It helps to think of partnering as if it were a project. Mergers, acquisitions, and alliances may confuse us, but we know projects. In science, we live, breathe, and succeed with projects every day. Managing partnering like a project means doing the same things with partnering that we do to make projects successful: assigning leaders, clarifying individuals roles and responsibilities, setting clear deliverables and schedules, establishing effective processes for exchanging information, and solving problems.

    Our partnering activities bring so many promising ideas and people together. It’s time we learned to make the most of them.


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