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Strategy experts: the real thing

What defines genuine strategy experts in the biomedical industry?

The biomedical business applies massive means to meet essential ends.

The amounts spent and the lives changed means that strategy expertise – the ability to allocate resources to optimise outcomes – is more consequential than in any other industry. Yet the term ‘strategy expert’ is overused and misunderstood, and advice about how to be one is confused and conflicting.

This series of four articles builds on the work of others. It draws on many sources but I would draw special attention to the work of Roger Kneebone. His book ‘Expert’ is a recommended source of further reading on this topic. This series explores the question of what a strategy expert is and how to be one. In this first article, I first define what a strategy expert is in the context of our exceptional and important industry.

Then I describe the three areas of mastery without which any claim to strategy expertise is weak. In the subsequent articles, I describe how those three areas of mastery can be developed, again in the particular context of pharma, medtech and other biomedical businesses. The series is not about strategy processes or techniques. It is about what individuals have to do and what they have to be if they are to claim, authentically, to be biomedical strategy experts.

What is a strategy expert?

The beauty and the beast of language is that all words come wrapped in values. In the cases of ‘strategy’ and ‘expert’, both words carry strong connotations of importance, status and reputation. Consider, for example, how often LinkedIn profiles use the words ‘strategy’ and ‘expert’ and compare their prevalence with ‘tactical’ and ‘practitioner’, which are usually more accurate but carry less status value.

This is evidence that the words have become corrupted and that any serious discussion has to begin with exactly what ‘strategy experts’ are. There are many definitions of strategy but they all revolve around the allocation of substantial resources, sustained over time, to achieve large-scale goals.

This means that if you are not responsible for allocating resources, or those you allocate are a small part of your organisation’s overall resources, or that your intended goals are low in your firm’s hierarchy of goals, then you are probably not a strategist. In the biomedical business, ‘publication strategy’ and ‘meetings strategy’, for example, fail to meet these criteria. They are important operational activities, but they are not strategy.

Strategy varies according to what resources are allocated where. A sustained allocation of sales, marketing, medical and market access resources to achieve market share is called a brand or marketing strategy. The allocation of scientific resources to fulfil a target product profile is called a new product development strategy.

The allocation of resources between markets and products, when aimed at an overall ROI goal, is a portfolio strategy. All of these meet the substantial, sustained and goal-oriented criteria of strategy in a way that operational activities do not. While the construct of strategy is well understood, that of a strategy expert is less so. Researchers in the field identify three, salient differences between the competent practitioner and the truly expert.

First, experts have a level of skill that allows them to achieve good outcomes even in circumstances that would cause competent practitioners to fail.

Second, experts enable the progress of their field by inventing new or improving existing competencies, whereas competent practitioners continue to implement existing methods.

Finally, experts transfer both old and new competencies to others less competent than themselves. Absent these three claims, you may be a competent practitioner but you are probably not a bona fide expert.

Experts can exist in any part of our industry’s value chain, from discovery to commercialisation and all points in between. One characteristic of an expert can be seen in a scientist who solves questions that have stymied other scientists for years.

The supply chain specialist who advances logistical practice shows another, and the senior marketer who elevates the level of value proposition design across the company yet another. Such individuals have competency in their fields but it is not until they show all three characteristics that they can really be called experts.

So the definition of a strategy expert, which is fundamental to understanding how to become one, is a combination of the authentic meanings of those two words before they became corrupted. A strategy expert is one whose competence in allocating substantial resources, over the long term, enables the achievement of large goals even in circumstances where a competent practitioner would fail.

To be considered truly expert, that superior competence must accompany significant development of strategic practices and the transference of those to less competent colleagues. In the context of the biomedical business, the parallels with our scientific and medical experts are useful. In strategy, just as much as in medicine, a relevant postgraduate education, continuing education and many years of strategy-related experience within the industry are necessary, but insufficient, qualifications for any strategy expert in the industry.

This demanding definition eliminates many of those who claim to be strategy experts in our sector, whether they work inside biomedical companies or as external consultants. In practice, these strict criteria mean that the pool of people who claim to strategy experts in the biomedical sector is far larger than those who have a genuine claim to that description. When we use the term accurately, we are talking about a very small number of people.

The ingredients of strategy expertise

Narrowing our focus to those with a genuine claim to be strategy experts allows us to think more clearly about how a strategy expert is made, both generally and within the particular context of our industry. By setting aside all those who are no more than competent practitioners, it allows us to focus our attention on the characteristics of genuine strategy experts.

Even with this tight focus, it is a complex field that encompasses not only individual knowledge and skills but also their application with and through other people. Much more so than, for example, an expert surgeon or pianist, a biomedical strategy expert’s competencies must be applicable in an organisational context.

Working out what makes a strategy expert by looking at strategy experts is a little like working out the ingredients of an already baked cake. But Roger Kneebone, a polymathic surgeon who has studied expertise, has identified a very useful way of doing that.

Kneebone’s model sees expertise as the result of mastery in three domains: oneself, knowledge and relationships. I am going to use his model to structure what makes a strategy expert in the biomedical industry. First, in the rest of this introductory article, as overview and then, in the succeeding three articles, in more detail.

Mastering oneself

Any kind of expertise begins inside the mind and body of the expert. When I used to stand alongside surgeons, I would marvel at their manual dexterity as they opened, explored and sutured.

As a novice saxophonist, I can hear in the playing of a maestro the superb coordination of breath, tongue, jaw and fingers. These and other experts have mastered control of their own mental and physical functions to a degree that is far beyond that of an ordinarily competent comparator.

Strategy experts’ mastery of themselves focuses more on mental processes than the physical. Many of our cognitive processes, from framing problems to using heuristics, evolved in the relatively simple context of everyday life and are insufficient to the complex task of strategising.

In biomedical markets, we see examples of this when market structure is oversimplified to clinical needs alone or when relative competitive strengths are framed only in terms of product features. Experts in biomedical strategy learn to override and direct their evolved mental processes.

For example, they frame the market as a multifaceted set of clinical, economic and non-rational needs. And they see competitive strengths as arising from a multi- layered value proposition. It is in the awareness of and mastering of one’s own cognitive processes, as opposed to being unconsciously acquiescent to them, that we can see the first, foundational stage of being a strategy expert in a biomedical context.

Mastering knowledge

The expertise of knowledge workers rests largely on their ability to create and then use knowledge. It is an awe-inspiring experience when my tailor combines some limited information about my dimensions and some style preferences to create a suit that expresses my personality.

I once physically gasped when an occupational psychologist drew together a battery of tests to tell me more about myself than I was comfortable with. These experts were characterised by their mastery of information and its synthesis into knowledge.

Strategy experts must master a bewildering variety of knowledge. Their knowledge domain includes both the sociological and technological aspects of the firm and its market environment. It includes causal, declarative and procedural knowledge, both tacit and explicit.

In a biomedical context, this can range from the epidemiological to the political, from the biological to the statistical and from internal budgeting to external health technology assessment. Strategy experts in this arena learn to master this complexity with combinations of inductive, deductive and abductive learning.

In doing so, they identify the critical alignment issues between their organisation and the market, issues that guide resource allocation towards therapy areas and market segments. It is in this sophisticated use of knowledge, as opposed to elaborate but insight-poor data-crunching, that we can discern the second pillar of being a strategy expert in biomedical markets.

Mastering relationships

Some experts work in isolation but many work through others. Watching a maestro conductor lead an orchestra is a moving example of the latter. So too is watching a world-class footballer take, use and pass the ball repeatedly until making or scoring a goal. The professors I most admire, while appearing to be solo acts, actually involve their class in a joint performance. All three examples demonstrate a mastery of relationships with others.

Strategy experts necessarily work with and through others. Their colleagues are both the source of the knowledge they have to master and the channel through which their strategy is enacted. Strategy experts must communicate with, manage and influence their organisational superiors, subordinates, peers and clients.

In the setting of a biomedical company, working relationships extend across a challenging variety of functions and specialisms, each with their distinctive world view, professional subculture and, sometimes, political agenda. Biomedical strategy experts master this relationship web with a blend of informal authority, communication and influencing skills.

Without this mastery, strategising in a biomedical firm is effectively impossible. It is in this mastery of relationships, as opposed to the exercise of formal power, that we observe the third essential element of being a strategy expert in this complex organisational environment.

A well-baked cake

To continue the baked cake analogy, it would be naïve to question which of the three masteries – oneself, knowledge and relationships – was most important in the making of a strategy expert. It is their combination and not just their presence that denotes an authentic strategy expert. ]

Each is necessary and none is sufficient. This raises questions about how each type of mastery is achieved in the complicated context of the biomedical sector. In this article, I’ve been able to touch on those questions but not explore them fully. In the next three articles in the series I’ll do that, beginning with the first, Mastering Oneself.

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

29th April 2021

From: Marketing



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