Please login to the form below

Not currently logged in
Email:
Password:

Darwin's Medicine blog

Professor Brian D Smith is an authority on the pharmaceutical industry and works at SDA Bocconi University and Hertfordshire Business School.

Breaking the cookie cutter

Differentiated strategies need differentiated thinking

Cookie cutter

There is a reason that Darwinian evolution has been called ‘the greatest single idea anyone ever had’. 

It’s not that it’s mind-bogglingly clever. In fact, one of his contemporary’s responses was simply, ‘How stupid of us not to have thought of that before’. No, the power of Darwin’s idea is that it is so widely applicable, both in theory and in practice.

Recently, much of my work has involved one particularly important and practical application of evolution to strategic planning. As usual, stick with me through the science bit and very soon I’ll get to something useful you can take away.

The not-so-selfish gene

Richard Dawkin’s selfish-gene idea – that genes are the unit of selection in evolution – is not the only game in town.

Many evolutionary scientists think that evolution, in both biology and business, is better explained by a concept called multi-level selection (MLS). MLS implies that the environment selects not only for traits that benefit the individual but also for those that benefit the group – the tribe or, in my work, the company. For example, subordinating individual needs to those of the group helps organisations thrive.

Evolutionary psychologists see MLS as the explanation for a human trait call de-individuation, in which we identify more as part of the group and consequently lose some of our self-awareness.

To understand the benefits of de-individuation, one must only consider what happens in its absence: Groups in which we all act as self-interested individuals quickly fall apart. But evolutionary traits often have a cost too and, in the case of de-individuation, social psychologists point to mob behaviour and ‘group think’ as the counterweight to the positives of teamwork.

Painful truths

One practical application of MLS and de- individuation has been very visible in several recent companies I’ve studied. In one archetypal example, the Chief Marketing Officer asked me to comment on a suite of plans written by his brand team leaders.

These were the outcomes of a newly revised brand planning process that had been supervised by a specialised consultancy. The process, of course, came with its own huge library of templates and guidelines.

I began my feedback diplomatically and described the plans as ‘industry standard’, a description which was accurate but deliberately circumspect. With a smile, the CMO saw through my reticence and asked me to be more organisations thrive.

Evolutionary psychologists see MLS as the explanation for a human trait call de-individuation, in which we identify more as part of the group and consequently lose some of our self-awareness.

To understand the benefits of de-individuation, one must only consider what happens in its absence: Groups in which we all act as self-interested individuals quickly fall apart. But evolutionary traits often have a cost too and, in the case of de-individuation, social psychologists point to mob behaviour and ‘group think’ as the counterweight to the positives of teamwork.

Painful truths

One practical application of MLS and de- individuation has been very visible in several recent companies I’ve studied. In one archetypal example, the Chief Marketing Officer asked me to comment on a suite of plans written by his brand team leaders.

These were the outcomes of a newly revised brand planning process that had been supervised by a specialised consultancy. The process, of course, came with its own huge library of templates and guidelines.

I began my feedback diplomatically and described the plans as ‘industry standard’, a description which was accurate but deliberately circumspect. With a smile, the CMO saw through my reticence and asked me to be more forthright, so I gave him my detailed critique and concluded by saying that these plans were generic.

In both analysis and decision, I told him, his plans were no different from those of the competition and, allowing for minor tactical differences, these plans were very similar to those of other life sciences companies.

Such similarity is not a problem if you have an incomparably superior product or unbeatably low cost, but if the purpose of the new strategy-making process was to create differential competitive advantage, it was failing.

It was a painful discussion for both of us and at the end of it the CMO was both relieved and frustrated. I had confirmed his opinion but he had no solution to the problem. He’d invested a lot in the new process to no avail.

Blind alleys and getting messy

It was at this point that I introduced him to the idea of de-individuation. His teams had de-individuated; no one wanted to rock the boat and everyone wanted to agree.

Combined with the strongly prescriptive new process and templates, this led to cookie-cutter brand plans, with which everyone agreed but that added no differential value. To get buy-in, they had made the strategic equivalent of vanilla ice cream.

To move things forward, I cited Lewin to the dispirited CEO: ‘There’s nothing so practical as a good theory.’ MLS and de-individuation tell us that we can’t expect, and may not want, our brand teams to dissolve into groups of mavericks. It’s better to channel their evolved traits in a more subtle way.

For example, we could do several things that ‘disorder’ the brand planning process in a way that reconciles being a team player with being original and creative. There are many ways to do this, from defining the outcomes of the process slightly differently to introducing new people into the team.

I don’t have the space to describe these methods here, but I have elsewhere*. The central point is don’t push against de-individuation, channel it with small but thoughtful tweaks to the process.

The power of an idea

As an industry we are brilliant at absorbing the latest concepts from the natural sciences, but we’re far less good at assimilating ideas from the social sciences. Evolutionary economics, in particular, has so much to offer leaders in the industry and solving cookie-cutter plans is just one example.

* An article describing these approaches, ‘Messy Marketing’, is available on request from brian.smith@pragmedic.com

Professor Brian D Smith works at SDA Bocconi and the University of Hertfordshire. He is a world-recognised authority on the evolution of the life sciences industry and welcomes questions at brian.smith@pragmedic.com

16th October 2019

From: Healthcare

Share

Featured jobs

Subscribe to our email news alerts

PMHub

Add my company
Creative Medical Research

Specialising in medical device market research and participant recruitment human factors research, our approach is people-centric. We thrive on making...

Latest intelligence

OPEN Health reflections on the World Orphan Drug Congress in Barcelona
Having just returned from a very busy but hugely enjoyable few days at congress, I wanted to share our views on the event and key themes that our healthcare communications...
R&D protocol amendments
Rethinking trials: the pros and cons of protocol amendments
Protocol amendments occur often and can be beneficial, but the steps involved can be complex...
Using human insights to push healthcare communications forward
This blog highlights the value of human perspectives, showing how insights can propel healthcare communications forward to ultimately improve lives...

Infographics