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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

Agile strategy or strategy for ‘agile’?

By Maxine Smith and Melissa Dagless


The language we use at work has changed dramatically over the last couple of years. Terms such as ‘sprint’, ‘waterfall’ and ‘scrum’ have filtered through from the tech industry and it is rare to go a week without the mention of ‘Agile’.

The ‘Agile’ methodology is very powerful when used in the right way. Many teams are making huge strides by accessing the benefits working collaboratively using Agile for the delivery of digital solutions.

But can Agile be a strategy development tool in pharma? Can it help with planning or launch or the introduction of new capabilities? Through our work with clients, we have increasingly seen that by taking a very practical, accessible approach to Agile, it can catapult teams forward in their productivity, cross- functional teamwork and innovative thinking.

So, what seems to be the magic ingredients of success?

The first magic ingredient is to ensure that it is applied to the right problem.

Agile works when it is applied to a specific question or challenge when the answer is not clear, or where different approaches have failed in the past, eg large cross-functional team projects. It doesn’t work well when the teams know the answer they seek and they want to ‘bring people on the journey’ or gain specific input. So, we don’t believe Agile works well to complete brand plan templates but looking at how brand planning can be more customer-centric is a great challenge to be tackled in this way. Equally, it can be applied successfully where the subject matter expertise is important, when sharing experience is critical and where it is complex to access appropriate solutions, eg how to maximise artificial intelligence in rare diseases.

Secondly, you need leadership buy-in. A leader that is bought into the concept of Agile provides space for the team to work, empowers the team to make decisions and doesn’t let perfection be the enemy of productivity, which is vital.

Finally, you need to get the team right. The SLAM (self-organising, lean, autonomous and multidisciplinary) team must have no more than six people to be productive and to move forward at speed. The product owner needs to champion the needs to the user and ensure that they are front and centre in the development of the solution. Finally, the team needs to be facilitated by an expert scrum master.

We have acted in the scrum master role for over 200 pharma clients and have found that having an external scrum master who has deep subject matter expertise, who can also bring other elements such as design thinking or behavioural economics, enables teams to rapidly move forward as they know what to listen for and really connect Agile to the core of the challenge that drives a different output.

So, what are the benefits, I hear you ask?

Uptake has found by taking this practical approach to Agile, it can help teams to:
1. Innovate – pushes the team to think beyond normal approaches and builds on
innovation across the industry and beyond
2. Rapidly improve productivity – solve the problem in half the time on average
3. Be a true team – forges cross-team collaboration
4. Focus on value – allows focus on areas of value and reduces areas of unnecessary discussions
5. Strengthen capability – strengthens the teams on how they work to resolve challenges together in the future.

We have had excellent results using this ‘Uptake Practical Approach to Agile’ working with the World Health Organization and a pharmaceutical company to create a 12-month action plan to introduce critical medicine to less developed countries; with a digital and core team to co-create a new digital platform with customers; with a leadership team to inject innovation by co-creating an approach and materials directly with customers; with an access team to develop a new remote-not- distant concept to support system change post-COVID-19; with a cross-functional team to create an innovative pathway to shape tender requirements in a rapidly changing environment, and with a global launch team to create a launch plan with local team input and engagement, to name just a few!

The response from taking this concept of Agile and making it practical and tailored for our team’s and industry’s cross-functional way of working has been overwhelmingly positive. As execution speed expectations increase, we believe that this approach can help ensure that our strategy, planning, capability and launch thinking can flex and overcome challenges to meet these expectations and that we, as an industry, can truly benefit from one of the most revolutionary methodologies at our disposal.

Maxine Smith is a Director at Uptake Strategies and Melissa Dagless is Head of Growth, both at Uptake Strategies

10th October 2022

From: Marketing


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