Live from eyeforpharma Philadelphia 2019— why pharma needs to defy conventions in problem solving in order to drive change and impact.  

Today’s commercial teams tend to fall into one of two prevailing camps. They either excel at thinking in an out-of-the-box manner but experience mis-steps on execution, or they struggle with ideating in novel ways, but they bring strength in detailed and coordinated execution.

At the core, these two groups are fundamentally about problem solving. Regardless of where the deficit lies—in strategy or in execution—what makes problem solving or seizing opportunities so difficult?

Not every challenge is created equal. 

There are Simple Challenges, which can usually be solved on your own by connecting obvious dots that are based on facts and observations. An example: deciding how to allocate your team’s budget.

Complicated Challenges are linear and have been solved many times before. There are often many experts that have cracked these codes – they know what success looks like, but also readily recognize that they need to get the lay of the land of a particular situation, market segment or business context. An example: installing a Veeva CRM system within your organization.

Finally, Complex Challenges are multi-dimensional questions that are in a league of their own. They need to be solved “from scratch” every time, but also require a critical mass of stakeholders to provide input, buy-in and advocacy to see success occur. An example: being faced with loss of exclusivity, embarking on the annual brand planning process, or entering a new therapeutic area.

Complex Challenges are often approached with the same strategies that work for Simple and Complicated issues. These approaches break down primarily because cultivating shared understanding is an overlooked component. The consequences? Long delays, partial solutions, surface-level insights, and suboptimal execution.

So, what do we do?

  1. Bucket your challenges by type:
    • Simple – solve yourself
    • Complicated – bring in the experts
    • Complex – define a completely new approach tailored to the nuances of that problem
  2. View the world through the lens of requisite variety, the principle stating that “only variety can destroy variety.” Essentially, to manage the diversity of challenges we face in pharma, we must arm ourselves with a repertoire of responses that is as varied and nuanced as the very problems we face. What do we need to pack in our arsenal?
  3. Convene a multi-disciplinary team, all empowered with authority to identify, absorb, think and decide together. When they collectively navigate through this series of steps to initiate the problem-solving activities, that cascades. This group also organically translates their shared understanding to shared ownership of the actions needed to pull the vision through to execution.


When you bring together a high-powered, requisite-variety group, you get: high-volume, high-quality, high-velocity, high-impact collisions of ideas and thinking. By design, every individual is connected to every individual and ad hoc interactions are productive, in service of solving the challenge at hand.

About the Author:

Carolyn Stephenson is SVP, Director of Insights at Syneos Health.