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Mastering oneself

What does it take to be a biomedical strategy expert?

In the first article in this series, I wove together research about strategy and expertise to give a robust, demanding definition of a strategy expert (see box 1).

I then applied that definition to the specific context of the biomedical industry. Building on the pioneering work of Roger Kneebone, I then outlined the three areas one has to master in order to be a biomedical strategy expert. In this article, I will cover the first of those – Mastering Oneself. In the next two, I will cover Mastering Knowledge and Mastering Relationships.

The meaning of mastering oneself

To steal the words of zoologist Desmond Morris, we humans are naked apes. The few million years since we shared an ancestor with chimps and bonobos have not erased our hardwired instincts evolved over aeons. And the higher mental faculties we have developed in the last quarter of a million years, while impressive, are adaptations to a smaller, simpler world of hunter-gatherer tribes.

In simple terms, we did not evolve to allocate massive, complex resource sets across heterogenous global markets that are being transformed by rapid social and technological change. Yet that is what strategists in the biomedical business are asked to do.

Drilling down into the mental adaptations that differentiate us from other higher primates, we discover two traits of human psychology that are especially pertinent to being a strategy expert.

The first is that we depend a lot on heuristics, mental shortcuts that allow us to solve problems quickly and easily but at the cost of inaccuracy, errors and biases. When we try to be biomedical strategists, these palaeolithic adaptations trip us up simply because these pervasive psychological sub-routines were not built for the job.

The second trait is what Kahneman and Tversky called system 1 and system 2 thinking, but which has become known as fast and slow thinking. Fast thinking, which often depends on heuristics, is automatic, intuitive and largely unconscious.

By contrast, slow thinking is controlled, deliberate and expensive in terms of time and energy. To a significant degree, slow thinking can overcome many of the limitations of heuristic-dependent fast thinking when making strategy. But it is difficult and it is deceptive.

Many researchers have shown that our thinking is most flawed when we think we are thinking slow but are simply unconscious of our dominant system 1 mental processes. Since strategising is largely a mental process, mastering oneself in order to be a strategy expert means, in essence, mastering the ability to override system 1, fast, heuristic thinking with system 2, slow, critical thinking.

This is what I see when I observe strategy experts in pharma, medtech and related sectors. Understanding how to achieve this mastery over one’s own brain, amid the complexities of biomedical markets, under intense competitive pressure and when system 1 hides from you, is the first step to becoming a biomedical strategy expert.

Achieving self-mastery

It is an education to talk to strategy experts about their personal development. Their stories have many commonalities – education, experience, mentoring – but many non-expert, competent professionals have the same background.

Strategy expertise seems to be less a function of experience and more about how that experience is processed and learned from. Strategy experts have learned to keep system 2 in charge by making sense of their history, achievements and failures better than those whose similar experience has only resulted in competence. How do a special few manage to do this better than the majority?

The exact answer seems to depend on whether you are an extrovert or introvert. Just as these two personality types gain their energy from others or from within, their thinking abilities seem also to have external or internal origins. Extroverts engage system 2 by sharing their experience with others, using questions and conversations to slow thinking down and to force thinking up from system 1 to system 2.

Introverts achieve the same result by various kinds of internal dialogue, frequently ‘arguing’ with themselves or, like me, thinking by writing. In both cases, the result is to overcome the weaknesses of heuristics by adding levels of critical, deliberate thinking.

I have seen this phenomenon many times in biomedical strategy experts. Frequently, we have more information than we can easily process. System 1 heuristics offer to help us by focusing on the most recent or salient information – a variant of what Kahneman calls ‘availability heuristics’.

When you observe a genuine strategy expert asking for more contextual or comparative information, you are seeing system 2 thinking being switched on in order to look beyond the available information.

Another example, common in biomedical, is the framing of strategic issues in terms of the disease or products, an example of Kahneman’s ‘anchoring heuristics’. When a biomedical strategy expert says ‘forget the condition and treatment for a moment, what does the patient need?’, this is system 2 thinking pulling the issue away from its anchor in product orientation.

Perhaps the most common and egregious examples of system 1 thinking in biomedical strategising are the related practices of benchmarking, best practices and case studies. Often, these are symptoms of what Kahneman called the ‘representativeness heuristic’.

It is quick and easy to make comparison with firms in the same market or to want to emulate successful competitors. These methods are sometimes thoughtful but more often based on untested assumptions that the comparator is representative of your strategic situation.

When an expert strategist asks the question: ‘In what way are our situations similar and dissimilar to them?’, they are replacing the representativeness heuristic with the more critical system 2 thinking mode.

Barriers to self-mastery

I have learned as much about self-mastery from those who have failed to achieve it as I have from those who have. As with learning self-mastery, failure to do so seems to be idiosyncratic and related to personality type.

Psychologists characterise personality in terms of the ‘Big Five’ traits (see box 2) and the ability to master oneself seems to be associated with moderation in these traits. For example, low personality openness seems to favour reliance on heuristics.

Equally, excessive agreeableness does not seem very compatible with asking critical questions. Similarly, too little conscientiousness deters the hard work of re-anchoring issues and too much neuroticism tends to favour representativeness biases. Perhaps unlike what we observe in some expert artists or scientists, expert strategists seem to be moderate in their personalities because that moderation enables self-mastery and extremes of personality make self-mastery more difficult.

Recognising self-mastery

If, in the context of the biomedical strategy expert, self-mastery equates to the ability to override system 1 and to use system 2, and is somewhat personality-dependent, then how might one know when one has mastered one’s mental processes? None of us carries a red light indicating ‘system 2 enabled’.

This important question is especially pertinent since, by wrapping themselves in formal strategy processes, non-expert system 1 thinkers can masquerade as system 2-thinking strategy experts. In my observations of biomedical strategy experts, their degree of self-mastery is indicated by five behaviour patterns (see box 3). The first of these is the way strategy experts respond to new information.

Self-mastery is revealed by interest, curiosity and self-confidence; a lack of it is revealed by disinterest, criticism and defensiveness. The second is a consistent habit of self-reflection. Self-mastery is indicated by being aware of one’s own thought processes and alert to their possible weaknesses.

A third indicator of self-mastery in a strategist is communication behaviour. Clarity in expression, listening skills and communicating to understand, rather than to win an argument, all characterise self-mastery. A fourth is a tendency towards creative inference.

Using system 2 thinking allows expert strategists to draw meaning from information in a non-obvious way, such as identifying new opportunities or unforeseen threats. Finally, self-mastery is often accompanied by compassion, empathy and humility. These traits seem to flow from the self-confidence engendered by self-mastery. Together, these five behavioural traits can be used to assess one’s own level of self-mastery and that of others. They have the great advantage that they are very difficult to fake consistently.

The first step

Roger Kneebone’s trifecta of mastering oneself, mastering information and mastering relationships is a powerful and practical tool for thinking about strategy expertise in the biomedical sector.

In this article, I have described how mastering oneself is largely about mastering one’s own mental processes and establishing systems 2 thinking. Whether that is achieved and how it is achieved is strongly influenced by personality characteristics such as the big five traits.

This suggests that there may well be a personality type or types that make good strategists and others that do not, which seems intuitively correct. In any case, assessing one’s own self-mastery and that of others is helped by five observable and hard-to-fake behaviour patterns.

Exhibiting those behaviours is a good indicator that one has mastered oneself and made the first step towards being a genuine biomedical strategy expert. In the next article I will describe the second step of mastering knowledge.

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

6th July 2021

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

6th July 2021

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