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We need to keep learning to keep innovating

How embracing experimentation and making space for learning can fuel creativity

One of the things that makes working in healthcare communications so fascinating is the ringside seat that it gives us on the drug discovery and development process.

We are privileged to meet the people striving to develop new medicines to make people’s lives better by treating or curing diseases. It is their brilliance, their drive, their tenacity and their sheer hard work that can propel a molecule from the laboratory, through the twists and turns of development and clinical trials.

For every molecule that makes it into phase 3 trials – let alone to approval and launch – there are hundreds more that have fallen by the wayside. In fact, around 90% of discovery molecules fail to become medicines. It may be the successes that we talk about, but deep down we know that the failures are part of the story too.

Without their willingness to embrace the possibility – the inevitability – of failure, our colleagues in R&D simply could not have achieved their many successes.

Why then, we asked ourselves, is failure something that seems to be feared in healthcare communications? We believe that this fear of failure is one of the factors that has nudged us towards being more risk-averse than we need to be.

What’s the worst that could happen?

There is an expectation in communications that everything will go right the first time: the strategy will pay off, the messages will hit home and the metrics will be smashed. We think this expectation – which can make trying something new seem like a risky pursuit – is at the heart of our industry’s tendency to fear failure and avoid risks.

It encourages us to stick to ‘safe’ options: to do again what we have done before because we know it works well enough, even though trying something new could work even better.

It nudges us to hedge our bets by staying on well- trodden paths rather than venturing into new territory and seeking new and potentially greater rewards.

If you always do what you’ve always done...

You are probably familiar with the saying: ‘if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.’ Doing what we have always done – because we know that we can do it, because we know that it meets our compliance standards, because we know that it works – can be an attractive option.

But what if it is not the best that we can do? If trying something different has the potential to give us a better result, don’t we owe it to ourselves, to the companies and, ultimately, the patients we serve to see if we can make it work? We believe that we do.

There is something else to consider here, too: as we go to print in the middle of a global pandemic, the world is changing like never before. The way that our audiences – patients and healthcare professionals alike – consume information is changing, and we must rapidly evolve and adapt to meet their needs and requirements at this particularly challenging time.

In tandem, the healthcare communications landscape is becoming more diverse and dynamic as tech companies move into what has traditionally been ‘our’ space.

Let’s not forget, either, that the huge strides our colleagues in R&D are making are transforming the way we think of medicines and the diseases they treat. We have new stories to tell and we need new ways to tell them.

Feel the fear...and do it anyway?

If we continue to see innovation as a risky business that opens us up to the possibility of failure, it is almost inevitable that we will continue to do what we have always done. There are no guarantees that trying something new is going to deliver the results you want. We can’t take the risk away from trying something new.

There is a belief in R&D that if you’re not failing, then you’re not innovating. The important part here is to ‘fail fast’ and ‘fail well’ and ensure you have been able to test your hypothesis. So, what can we do to chip away at the ingrained belief that pushing boundaries and striking out in new directions is something that will almost always come back to bite us?

Let’s take a leaf out of R&D’s book

The Cannes or Canned? group agreed that moving away from viewing success and failure in black and white terms and creating an environment that values and rewards experimentation and learning is a strong place to start. Adopting a ‘test and learn’ approach could be our first step towards achieving this.

‘Test and learn’ would see us identifying a potentially valuable strategy or tactics and piloting it on a small scale with the intention of discovering how effective it can be and how we can use it in the future.

If we aim to test and learn, our objectives and metrics are as much about what we discover as the media coverage we generate, the numbers of hits on our website or the extent to which we shift attitudes within our target demographic.

A test and learn approach to an influencer campaign could see us launch the campaign in just one market with a handful of influencers and clear milestones. At every milestone we could assess progress, look at what had worked and what needed to be rethought, and then evolve our campaign based on these learnings.

We can then expand it to include more influencers, more content and more countries as our knowledge and experience of what works and what doesn’t work grows. Of course, if what we learn by doing this is that it’s not a strategy that works for us, we can wrap it up and refocus our efforts elsewhere. By working in this agile way, we minimise the risk of a large, high-stakes initiative ‘failing’, while maximising our ability to experiment and find new and better ways to engage with our audiences.

Learn more, fear less

To create an environment where creativity can truly thrive, however, it is not enough for us to learn from our successes and failures; we need to create the opportunities and impetus for those around us to learn too. As well as testing and learning, we can make space for sharing what we have learned to upskill and inspire our colleagues and, on a more practical level, to help them to avoid repeating our mistakes.

These opportunities to learn shouldn’t be restricted to the communications team, either. By encouraging the sharing of best practice between teams and divisions, we can showcase what we can achieve by being open to innovative ideas and making space to experiment with new ideas.

We can also demonstrate the value that we are bringing to our companies and our industry by ensuring that our communications keep pace with the world around us so that our messages and stories reach our audiences today and in the future.

It starts with us (and you)

In a highly regulated environment like pharma, feeling the fear and doing it anyway is never going to be a sensible course of action. What we can do, however, is to feel our fear of failure and see it as a challenge: a challenge to experiment with new approaches, a challenge to test out new approaches and learn from them, and a challenge to share what we have learnt.

By making space in our plans, our schedules (and our metrics) to experiment and learn, we can all play a part in priming ourselves, our teams and our industry to open the doors and welcome innovation in.

Cannes or Canned? is an initiative from the Healthcare Communications Association, in partnership with 90TEN. It brought together a working group of senior communicators from seven pharmaceutical companies with the aim of opening up innovation in healthcare and scientific innovations.

By Edel McCaffrey, Peter Impey, Paul Dixey and Catherine Priestley

24th August 2020

By Edel McCaffrey, Peter Impey, Paul Dixey and Catherine Priestley

24th August 2020


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