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All things Pharma

Implementing Agile working in pharma

Neil Osmond asks whether the Agile mindset and approach to managing projects could solve the pharmaceutical industry’s productivity problem and discusses the benefits of implementing Agile in pharma.

Agile is a mindset made popular by the technology sector, it has the potential to unlock solutions to productivity challenges. But could it solve the pharmaceutical industry’s productivity problem? The first consideration is whether we have a productivity problem in the first place. I believe we are being challenged on two fronts. Firstly, resource efficiency, as a result of declining access to customers through traditional channels, reduced margins, increasing research and development costs and a decrease in overall headcount. Secondly, the growing expectations of our customers and patients for remote consultations, social media, digital solutions and broader service offerings. It seems like we are increasingly required to deliver more, faster, with fewer resources and at reduced costs.

If you agree with these statements, I would argue we definitely have a productivity problem!

“Agile helped us create solutions that are aligned with the needs of our customers and patients. It has helped us to get solutions live quicker and respond to user feedback”
– Kym Jacks-Bryant, Global Digital Marketing Lead, Norgine

The good news is that we seem to be open to looking to other sectors for solutions and an obvious sector is technology. Big companies such as Google, Spotify and IBM often point to productivity improvements resulting from adopting Agile. However, not everything that works in other sectors works well in a highly regulated sector such as healthcare. The big question is whether a pharmaceutical version of Agile might be the key to unlocking greater productivity.

Agile mindset

Reflecting on my own journey, I needed a lot of convincing that it was worth the hassle and risk to move from traditional waterfall (Gantt charts etc.) to this new Agile way of working. However, nine years and 150+ projects later, I am 100% convinced that if I had adopted this mindset when I worked in a pharmaceutical company it would have transformed my personal productivity, and also the productivity of the teams I was part of, and which I managed. I am so convinced of its value that the best part of my job is now helping pharmaceutical teams (using Lego) to adopt the Agile mindset and seeing them flourish as a result.

However, I am frustrated by some of the myths surrounding Agile. For the record, it’s not new or complex. In fact, it’s not even a methodology. If Agile is anything, I would describe it as a ‘mindset’, of ‘doing more for less’ (who doesn’t want to do that?). At its heart, it enables you to deliver what the customer actually needs earlier, whilst reducing wasted time, effort and resources on the journey.

Whilst my company has been using an Agile  approach to projects for nearly a decade, until recently it was almost always new to our clients. However, in the last year we have seen a number of clients proactively adopt Agile internally and we have been training business teams on how they can use Agile in their day-to-day work.

Agile explained

So, what is Agile and where does it come from? Well the books, of which there are many, will tell you that it is an approach where solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organising, cross-functional teams. It evolved from a conference of technology experts who assembled in Utah in 2001 to discuss how technology projects seemed to be so often late, over budget, to low quality and functionally incomplete. Even when projects were on time, scope, budget and specification, customers seemed to be disappointed anyway. This group of 17 software experts developed four values and 12 principles. You can still see them on the original website www.agilemanifesto.org

That’s it: four values and 12 principles, and what’s more, they aren’t even that new. Their roots are in the lean manufacturing principles developed in the 1940s and 50s in the Toyota Manufacturing Company.

Implementing Agile in pharma

If you’re now excited about ‘the art of the possible’, the next step is where to start your journey with Agile. Here’s some top tips:


  1. Jump in together.

Train the team and get buy-in before you start. If you succeed as a team and fail as a team then everyone needs to want to ‘have a go’ or it will feel like it was your idea.

  1. Start with Agile lite.

You can start as simply as using a Kanban board and then build from there. There is no right and wrong way, you will find your ‘right’ way through trial and error.

  1. Get your roles right.

This is not obvious and took us a while to work out but being clear on who makes the decisions, who manages the tasks getting done, who contributes expertise and who is the voice of the customer makes projects run much more smoothly.

  1. Succeed as a team, fail as a team.

If you live by this, it makes blame games irrelevant and means that going at the pace of the slowest runner is not an excuse for everyone else.

  1. Speed to a Minimum Viable Solution.

This can be challenging but can unlock so much value by not committing to work and expenses until you have learned in the real world rather than guessing at the planning stage.

  1. Get support functions on board.

Get the functions that sign off your tasks to agree to your new way of working. Often signatory and regulatory functions are used as an excuse why Agile would ‘never work here’. However, our experience is the opposite, and once they have the hang of it, medical, legal, IT and compliance can find Agile liberating.


If you are still reading then maybe, just maybe, you want to find out more about Scrum, standups, sprints, retrospectives, Scrum Masters and Kanban boards, or maybe even fancy learning Agile in half a day using Lego. If you do, take a look at the ‘How to’ article on Agile that I have written for the Pharmafield website.


Case Studies

Nick Williams – My journey with Agile

I spent most of my career in the commercial arm of ‘Big Pharma’, with the most recent role being Business Unit Director at MSD UK. MSD started to introduce Agile to support their ambitions with digital; developing, adapting and reinventing content. However, by adopting Agile, I witnessed benefits that went further than simply keeping up with fast-moving digital campaigns. Teams functioned better together, and work was prioritised more clearly, delivered earlier, and with greater confidence that outputs would translate into outcomes for patients and healthcare professionals.

I became an Agile advocate and since leaving MSD, I help pharmaceutical teams develop and deliver their strategy by developing their own unique version of Agile.

Novartis UK is a great example of a company that has seen the tangible benefits of Agile. The UK Leadership Team was keen to identify ways to support their teams to work through complexity, rationalise workloads and achieve results.

We conducted a pilot with a single multi-channel marketing project in one integrated franchise team with a combination of initial training and ongoing support. Agile needed to deliver tangible results for the pilot to have been perceived as a success. They found:

  • Delivery time – reduced by half compared to internal benchmarks.
  • Production of materials – 70% reduction in time spent in approval, and costs were 50% lower than expected.
  • Team satisfaction – rated highly, with confidence to repeat this achievement in future work at +90%.

“Our pilot team delivered an outstanding result by adopting an Agile approach and their experience has had a direct influence on our decision to use Agile across more of our business,” said Caitriona Walsh, Business Franchise Head at Novartis UK. “We believe this can play a part in helping us prioritise what’s important and further simplify how we work, which will enable us to have a greater impact for patients.” Nick Williams, Director, Triducive

Norgine – Creating solutions with Agile

As an agency that adopts Agile in every project, we must be careful about how we introduce this to our clients; if we go too fast, they can feel bullied into working our way, but if we go too slow, we risk wasting our client’s resources when we know we could have been more productive. Norgine is a great example of where we have been on a journey from traditional project approaches to fully embracing Agile.

“Agile helped us create solutions that are aligned with the needs of our customers and patients. It has helped us to get solutions live quicker and respond to user feedback.” Kym Jacks-Bryant, Global Digital Marketing Lead, Norgine.


Neil Osmond is a technologist and founder of digital agency earthware. He has 20 years’ experience in healthcare and a passion for solving problems for patients and healthcare professionals. Go to www.earthware.co.uk/agile

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Neil Osmond
Neil Osmondhttps://earthware.co.uk/
Neil Osmond is a Technologist and Founder of earthware, a digital healthcare agency.


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