Spotlight interview: 15 minutes on strategic planning in pharma

Written by Ian Lee on Friday 1st November 2019

Ian Lee, Head of Strategy, OPEN Health Patient & Brand Communication takes 15 minutes to answer some key questions on strategic planning in pharma

1. What does strategy really mean?

One of the problems with strategy is that everyone seems to have a slightly different definition of it. For me, you’ve got to start with an objective and know where you ultimately want to get to. Then essentially you look at the whole environment around you: the market, your competitors, and the resources that you have as an organisation, to try and then find the best way of getting there. That’s the start of the process, but the future is inherently unpredictable. If your strategy is successful, you will change these starting conditions. For example, you may have done is made your competitors react to you, so your market has changed, and you have to update your strategy regularly in order to make sure you’re on track.

The example I like to give is that ‘strategy’ is like chasing a chicken across a field to catch it. You know where the chicken is and what direction you must go in, but as soon as you run, the chicken starts to move. So, you can start with a plan, but you often have to change it, and the real trick of strategy is knowing when to stick with your direction and knowing when to change.

2.  Can you do good strategy without good implementation?

Yes of course you can, but there is no point because without implementing the strategy, rather obviously, nothing is going to happen. The analogy I use here is that after Christmas lots of people join a gym and expect they will get fit, but if they don’t go it won’t make a difference. A good strategy is a start but it’s not going to change the world without action.

3. Does pharma “get” strategic planning?

It’s like everything, there’s good and bad within pharma in terms of the types of planning. The pharmaceutical industry has a long-term focus, with long lead times on products and new data, so you can plan for new indications years in advance. However, I think one of the issues is when trying to convert strategy into actions. For example, the one- or two‑year ops plan is sometimes not be as sharp as it could be. Organisations the size of large pharma aren’t necessarily nimble, particularly when you’ve got a top down approach in terms of a strategy from global that must be adapted by local regions. It can make things more efficient, but solid strategic planning is the key.

4. What does “great strategy” look like in pharma?

It’s when somebody has a single-minded approach which is based on a good strategy and sticks to it. With a consumer goods product like Coca-Cola the brand is very much the same as it was 20 years ago as it is today. However, when you launch a product within pharma, two or three years later you may have new indications or new customers to go to, so it does make it a little more difficult. Potentially you may also new brand managers every couple of years as well who want to make their mark, therefore what can start out as a sharp focus, can be lost over time. However, when you’ve got a great strategy with a good focus and everyone’s delivering it all the time, that’s when you get fantastic results.

5. Why is OPEN Health Patient & Brand Communications selected to support pharma on strategy?

There are 3 key reasons: first, we have lots of experience in doing these things and specifically we have people who have worked in the pharmaceutical industry for a long time and seen the strategy from the other side, so we can talk the same language.

Secondly, we can utilise all the expertise within PBC, where the idea of multi-disciplinary thinking means that rather than having a brand communications approach or a patient approach we make sure that all of those points are brought to bear, enabling a better‑rounded plan that’s approached from more angles. More diversity equals a better plan.

Lastly, what sets us apart from management consultants is the creative side.  Lots of planning meetings can be somewhat turgid if they just involve working through the SWOTs and CSF’s, but we can make them engaging and enjoyable occasions. We can drive participants to think of creative strategic and tactical ideas. I think that’s great for making people stand out in the market.


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