Agile in Pharma: why you should’ve started yesterday

Friday 5th of May 2023

Agile is most certainly not new anymore, but within healthcare companies it’s still not widely accepted. This could be seen as a missed opportunity, because agile provides a way-of-working and growth mindset. When operating in a highly regulated environment, it’s a challenge to adapt quickly to changes in the market and to try new things. If healthcare companies want to keep up with the pace of digital acceleration and innovation, they need to consider implementing an agile way of working.

When applying agile within your business, you are not only implementing a new way-of-working, but also shifting a mindset. More specifically, you move away from accepting the status quo and encourage a mindset of growth, innovation and experimentation. At one of our clients, a multinational pharmaceutical company, we experienced first-hand how the transition to agile went. We could compare this experience to wild-water rafting:

… You’re excited and afraid at the same time

… No one really knows what they are doing, but goes for it anyway

… If someone doesn’t take their role serious; we’re all in the water

… After hitting some rocks and getting seriously wet, it’s still one hell of a ride!

The metaphor hopefully paints the picture well; agile is about being able to make mistakes and learn from them. Experiments will fail and you won’t be the most smooth-running team right away, but this will be worth it when you gain efficiency and speed once you are up and running.

At Pharma Collective, we strongly believe in stealing with pride and learning from companies and industries that are at the forefront of innovation. As said, agile isn’t new and a lot of companies have already implemented it and learned as they went. That’s why we interviewed our colleague Debbie Bogaert, who has been working in FMCG for 16 years and gained a lot of experience in agile. She answers 6 burning questions when it comes to implementing agile.


Agile is often used as a buzzword but how do you determine if it could be useful for your organization?


“It is dangerous to make the switch to agile, just because it is a trend. Start from the challenges of your organization and see if agile could be an answer to that.

The key is to know the pains and gains of your company. What are the struggles that your company faces? What are your company’s goals? It is important to understand WHY you want to work agile.

What I noticed in my current role at Engie, is that they had a good reason to make the switch to an agile way-of-working. Agile is known for the principle of ‘start small, scale fast’. This brings along two key advantages compared to a traditional approach: an increased speed to market and customer centricity. If you work in squads on specific parts of your customer journey, you are forced to keep your customer at the center and tackle their specific needs rather than staying in the comfort zone of a defined role.

In addition, you will work on short sprints from 2 to 6 weeks that improve your speed too, as you start testing from the very beginning of the project and adjust based on in-market feedback.

How to put the idea of ‘start small, scale fast’ into practice? At a certain moment in your development process, you want to understand what works in terms of content and what doesn’t. Rather than sending out an email to 150.000 recipients that has to go through a tough approval process, you could send out a test to a small group of 300 people. That way, you can see whether this email actually performs well or not and improve accordingly. The main objective is to learn. If the response is lower than expected, this can be valuable feedback about the relevance of the content.

Afterwards, the team gathers thoughts to find out why the response was low. The advantage is that the barrier to interact with people from your small sample audience is much lower. It makes it easier to have an open conversation as to why they did not click on the email, for example. Doing this shows you put your customer at the center. By launching these small tests and avoiding a long process, you increase your speed to market. Yet again you learn more because you set up a flexible attitude to understand your customers better.”


Agile is usually known for its focus on the short term with fast iteration sprints. But how do you keep the overview of the long-term goals? How do you balance long and short term?


“Finding the balance between the short and long term was one of the biggest challenges for me. It’s one I also came across during my own projects.

It’s like building something in Lego bricks but losing sight of the whole construction plan.

You can see it like this: compare it to building something with red Lego bricks during one sprint and then continuing with blue Lego bricks during the next one. And when that sprint was wrapped up, I would switch to the yellow bricks and so on. At a certain point, I lost the essence. For each sprint I was building something small, but I didn’t see the bigger picture anymore. In other words, I lost the construction plan, the helicopter view.

Within agile, there are many ways to do regain the overview. A typical approach within agile is refinement. In this refinement phase, you decide which user stories are on your sprint planning and how your current sprints are going. There might be a need for a more strategic refinement when you look at the long term and evaluate whether you are still heading in the right direction and making progress in the fields you defined as crucial.”


When several squads are working on one brand or one product, it can be challenging to keep consistency towards your client. How can you guarantee this?


“It can indeed be quite challenging to find the balance between gaining speed (by launching fast) and keeping the right brand consistency. On the one hand, you want to avoid a tough procedure, complicated rules or very specific guidelines because it will make your process less agile. On the other hand, you want to communicate with the same tone of voice and messages across the entire customer journey for your client so that they get a very consistent story.

I would suggest setting ground rules on dos and don’ts when launching content. This helps you to create the minimum consistency across channels. But make sure to not fall into the trap of making long elaborate processes that limit your speed. Test and see what works for you company. If the process you set up is too limited or elaborate, don’t be afraid to adjust it.”


When working with agencies, we often see that they are not used to working in an agile way. How can we improve our collaboration?


“The challenge lies in the fact that, because you started working agile, it doesn’t mean agencies are ready to implement that way of working. Rather than working on one big campaign idea, you might want to split up your campaign in different parts and quickly test them on a small scale before launching for your entire audience.

First, it’s very important to communicate about the new expectations. Rather than focusing on one big idea, agencies should be able to come up with small ideas to test and support you in executing the small-scale test. Rather than a client – supplier relationship, you move towards a collaboration relationship. It allows you to discuss more but smaller ideas, that you can test and improve along the way.

Another option is to have people from the agency participate in certain squad meetings. This helps them to get on board early in the process and prevent working in silos, just like working agile also improves collaboration within your own organization. Many agencies are still trying to figure out how to set up this new collaboration model, but eventually this could become the new industry standard as more and more companies are making the switch to agile. My advice is to test things and see what works and what doesn’t.”


How do you ensure you have the right profiles in your squad? Would you recommend keeping all members in your squad the same or should we vary according to the sprint?


“In a perfect agile world, you pick the capabilities you need and form a squad per sprint based on the specific needs. In practice we see that it can be quite challenging to perfectly distribute capabilities across squads. Hence, companies tend to stick to stable squads divided over the different parts of their customer journey or products. When you need a different expertise for a specific sprint, reach out to your chapter lead to see if resources could temporarily be allocated to your squad.

If you feel like your squad misses a certain quality or skill, there are no limiting ‘rules’ to look for those additions elsewhere. One option is to add other competences for a certain project.

For example, when your squad doesn’t have as many marketers as initially planned, ask your chapter lead for more people with a marketing background. This is a typical agile way of working. You yourself carry a lot of responsibilities and can create and adapt according to specific needs.

Another interesting exercise it is to get to know your squad members, something that people might forget, or think is irrelevant. It is valuable for your squad as well as for your project to know who you are working with, what the qualities of each person are, which areas they thrive in, what their thoughts on the project are, and so on. This is information that can benefit your sprint a lot. The main idea is to blend all the ideas into one strong mind.”


One of the big challenges in an agile environment is the changing career path that becomes much more horizontal. How do you tackle that?


“In a traditional hierarchical structure, your career path is fairly straight forward. You start in a junior position, make it to senior and then switch to more managerial roles. In a more horizontal agile hierarchy, however, you develop yourself by taking up different roles in different disciplines and grow more lateral. As such, you don’t really move up but evolve to a more generalist role.

Consequently, there is a huge challenge on how to keep employees motivated and give them growth perspective, evaluation criteria and pay raises. This is extra challenging for high profile people who have the ambition to take up managerial roles, which are typically less present in an agile setting.

Important to note is that peer reviews and feedback are gaining importance and could serve as a good indicator on how people perform. This can be done either top down or bottom up, which helps to improve the management style of senior leadership.

If you are considering going agile, it is important to know what you get yourself into in order to avoid unwanted surprises. Agile is a new approach that many companies switch to, as it is very flexible – which comes in handy in these unpredictable times. To find out if agile is a match for your organization, start small and test things. If you see that it brings a different dynamic and some improvements, roll it out to other teams and build your own kind of agile.”

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