Are you there Pharma? It’s me, Liz. Part two: What’s Killing Creativity in Big Pharma Sales Forces?

Welcome back to the second post in my series, “Are you there Pharma? It’s me, Liz.”   This series identifies creative thinking squashers in Pharma and suggests strategic changes that will help Big Pharma to improve its business model, in hopes of radically changing the way Pharma goes about its business.  The first post discussed Big Pharma’s need to listen and act using tools like social media to provide better products and experience to patients.

Today I’d like to focus more on the sales side, where I wish that Big Pharma would allow for more creativity and freedom.  There are numerous creative, strategically minded, innovative thinking pharmaceutical reps out there.

Don’t believe me?

Well guess what- I was one for seven years.  Many changes in the way that pharmaceutical companies promote products and access customers have encouraged less creative, more conventional thinking. Today we’ll examine some of the origins of the obstacles to creativity that Big Pharma sales forces have faced.  Next time I’ll discuss why the obstacles to creativity exist, and why fostering creativity is a crucially important move for Big Pharma if it wants its sales forces to thrive. (and of course, if Big Pharma wishes to continue to be incredibly profitable, in the long run.)

[DISCLAIMER: this post is my opinion and a major critique of Big Pharma. It doesn’t mean Big Pharma is the devil. There’s just lots of work to be done to improve its effectiveness. Prepare yourself.]Creativity Killers in Big Pharma Pugtato

Creativity killers are rampant in Big Pharma Sales Forces.  The list of creativity killers below comes from my favorite class during my MBA: Creativity for Business Leaders.  Our required textbook was Roger von Oech‘s best selling creative thinking classic, “A Whack on the Side of the Head.”  It’s a must for anyone wanting to boost their creative prowess.

Here’s the ten creativity killers that without doubt, stifle creative thinking and creative employees:

  1. Search only for the right answer
  2. Never divert from the rules
  3. The urge to be practical
  4. Avoid Ambiguity
  5. Rely on conventional thinking out of fear of being perceived as foolish
  6. Time pressure
  7. Insufficient resources
  8. Celebration of efficiency
  9. Inability to forget the past
  10. Poor corporate immune system: celebrating conformity, quick death to unpredictable ideas

Feel free to revisit this list while you are reading.

Creativity killers that are present in Big Pharma Sales Forces:

  1. Creativity Killer #1: Search only for the right answer. As I mind-mapped the creativity squashers in Big Pharma, it became clear: when a singular solution for accessing a physician is discovered, management only supported this one solution, or “Best Practice.” Deviation from the best “best practice” is considered a waste of time and ineffective. Management has a deeply ingrained philosophy of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
  2. Creativity Killer #2, #3, #10: Follow the rules, be practical, poor immune system. In accordance with creativity killer #1, sales representatives are not only discouraged from inventing creative business plans and techniques, but are punished for trying new ideas, especially if they fail. Here we see that sales representatives are in fact told out right that deviation from “the plan or methods” or asking “what if” to generate alternative ideas is considered “negative.”  Isn’t asking “What If?” a crucial part of idea generation and the creative process?  I digress…
  3. Creativity Killer #4 & #5: Avoid Ambiguity. In a world where the FDA lays a heavy hand, and public unhappiness/lawsuits are everyday life for pharmaceutical companies, many pharmaceutical companies have found a sense of security in conformity. In pharma, a very prominent hierarchy culture exists, titles are important, and employees are encouraged to “document, document, document.” Whether documenting sales calls or being encouraged to print out every email communication, sales personnel have all but lost the ability to have effective interactions that bring added value to their customers and make independent strategic business decisions.
  4. Creativity Killers #6, #7, #8: Time pressure, lack of resources, celebration of efficiency. Time: Fake deadlines are a huge issue in pharma. Sales personnel are forced to see a customer “x number of times” a month, or check a box, instead of individually tailoring interactions per physician’s needs. Lack of Resources: In addition, by not allowing sales representatives to use Blackberries or Smartphones in the field to communicate with their customers by email, sales representatives lack the resources they truly need to be an effective mobile employee. (This of course could vary wildly among each company. I can only speak to my experience.) Email communication is seen as too risky because management feels they do not have enough control over this interaction and it could be used against them. Celebration of efficiency: Another creative killer hallmark in pharma is its overuse of Six Sigma projects. Rather than focusing time on developing creative solutions for customers, sales representatives are inundated with Six Sigma initiatives: surveys, focus groups, conference calls, meetings, paper work, you name it. The sheer number of projects and lack of change implementation post-project has left Six Sigma projects with very little credibility among sales representatives. A common joke among the sales representatives is that the pharma solution for any problem is to “Six Sigma- it.”
  5. Creativity Killer #9: Inability to forget the past. Big pharma companies have always been big. Doctors prescribed their drugs, and patients filled prescriptions. Reps had easy access to customers via stand up ‘details,’ lunches, dinner, etc. A huge issue for Pharma going forward is the paradigm shift in the environment in which reps operate. Access to customers is slim, (perhaps, due to the lack of quality interactions reps are able to have, doctors see no value add in seeing reps), managed care organizations playing a larger role in determining which drug a patient will receive, and patients are financially strapped due to economic downturn. There is a lack of fluid communication transmission between the field and corporate in Pharma, in that, even if sales reps are solicited for feedback, feedback is not acted on, is not given truthfully due to fear of retribution, and in many cases, is not even welcomed. In addition, sales reps who volunteer their experiences as to why to customer interactions are filled with dissatisfaction, are told that “that’s just not the case,” by upper management. Management continues to live in a dream world of the past. Re-visit the first post in this series for more on this topic.

There is a lack of fluid communication transmission between the field and corporate in Pharma, in that, even if sales reps are solicited for feedback: 1) feedback is not acted on, 2) is not given truthfully due to fear of retribution, and in many cases, 3) is not even welcomed.

This is a crisis of creativity and it is important. Big Pharma must learn to embrace and truly encourage the creativity of its sales people.  As access to physicians becomes more difficult, access to information is easier, and distrust of the industry is at an all time low, Big Pharma’s sales people are crucial to the long term success of the industry.  Being successful in this new environment will require truly creative sales forces allowed to try new ideas without fear of retribution.

Here’s another reason fostering creativity is important.

There’s this measurement called the “Global Creative Index.”  It measures three key factors that contribute to long-run economic prosperity: Technology, Talent, and Tolerance. Did you know there is a correlation between a country’s Global Creative Index and it’s GDP output?!  That is like music to my ears.  The Martin Prosperity Institute’s 2011 report titled “Creativity and Prosperity: The Global Creativity Index,” found that,

“Nations which score high on the GCI have higher levels of economic output, entrepreneurship, and overall economic competitiveness. Nations that invest in creativity and that achieve on the 3 Ts of economic development also have higher levels of human development, life satisfaction, and happiness.”

Relationship Creativity GDP Big PharmaThankfully, the US has jumped from #4 to #2 for overall GCI ranking, however, there are still areas of improvement for the US. Specifically improvement in the Global Creative Class Index, which measures the proportion of the workforce that is part of The Creative Class: “workers in fields spanning science and technology, business and management, healthcare and education, and arts, culture, and entertainment.” The Creative Class is a driving force of economic growth and comprises 40 percent or more of the workforce population in top 14 nations. In terms of Creative Class ranking, the US falls short- coming in at #27 and 34.99% of its workforce population checking in as part of the Creative Class.

Data presented in March 2012, suggest that the top 11 Big Pharma company operating profits are forcasted to be the lowest (20.5%) in a decade.  Operating profits have been declining steadily since 2003.   It’s time to get selling.  It’s time to listen to and nuture the creative sales people who want to make a difference.  Change is possible.  The first step is realizing that it’s time.

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