Be the Change: Ecosystem Culture Must Be Modeled, Not Dictated

Posted By: Jon Lavietes Member Resources, Collaborative Connections, Virtual Programs,

You might say that Kevin Little, CSAP, PhD, has prepared for his current role as senior director of alliances at Novo Nordisk all of his life. Throughout his childhood, he played the drums in various rock and jazz bands. As alliance managers are wont to do in their professional lives, he preferred to orchestrate the rhythm of a tune from behind the scenes. 

“I tend to like to sort of stay in the background, add some flourishes, build and work the momentum of the songs, as opposed to Animal from the Muppets banging on everything as loudly as possible. It's a very complementary drumming style,” said Little. 

Ripple Effect: Actions Have a Tricky Web of Consequences

After high school, a good deal of Little’s academic pursuits at institutions of higher learning were spent studying natural ecosystems, which has served him well now that multipartner ecosystems are taking root in biopharma just as they are in tech. In the latest Collaborative Connection Monthly webinar and roundtable, “Don’t Let Them Eat Your Lunch—Collaborative Culture Applied to Ecosystems,” Little likened ecosystem management challenges to the workings of a “spider web”: touch one corner, and ripples are felt all over the web.   

“Working with multiple partners or working with multiple groups within your own organization, it really requires an appreciation that what you’re doing in one area can affect the other areas. And then how to make that collaborative comes down to a lot of communication. Make sure that people feel [not only] invested in but involved in what’s going on,” said Little.

Biopharma alliance managers will discover the differences between managing a number of one-to-one partnerships, each with its own rhythms, operating models, and culture, and coordinating several partners working on the same set of initiatives. 

“When we then start to layer on ecosystems, where we’ve got multiple partners we’re working with, and they’re interacting in different ways, it’s exponentially more complex,” said Little.  

Modeling Collaborative Culture: More Than Just Empty Words

How do you motivate people within the company to accommodate so many different points of view, ideas, and capabilities being brought by an ecosystem of partners in order to harness breakthrough innovation? 

“What actually ends up becoming the culture of the organization comes down to the behavior people model,” said Little, before pointing to his T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Be the Change.”

In other words, employees will do as you do, not as you say. Charters, mission statements, and vision slides will be all for naught if the people within the organization don’t practice what they preach and prioritize partnerships with external entities.  

Loosening the Legal Binds That May Tie Your Hands

And that collaborative mindset manifests itself in many ways in the context of a biopharma ecosystem collaboration. For example, there will be times when the contract that you originally signed won’t meet the evolving needs of the ecosystem. Little has found that organizations that spur a collaborative culture have little problem saying, “Let’s not necessarily be beholden to some static contract.”   

“Yes, that’s how our multiple parties have agreed to work together in the past, but be flexible. Be ready to adapt,” Little said. “To really show that you want to work and innovate together, as opposed to being positional, be willing to have those discussions [about amending the contract].”

The right organizational culture should hopefully produce “a collaborative, open-minded group within legal who get that what we’re trying to do is come up with the best outcome,” said Little. “How do we minimize the risk while also enabling us to work well and adapt as that relationship evolves? You need to be able to help [legal] understand what you see as being the opportunity. Be willing to flag where that can cause problems if you do decide to change things. Work with them to help them get done what they need to do, too.”

Scout’s Honor: Looking for New Opportunities in Existing Ecosystems

Changes over the course of an ecosystem aren’t always unforeseen, and oftentimes they’re positive for all parties. Little advised listeners to “be a scout within the relationships you have with other partners” for new ways to mine value out of the ecosystem that you couldn’t possibly have envisioned at the outset of a relationship. As alliance managers get to know the competencies and resources of their ecosystem partners, new initiatives could be in the offing. And even better, the organizations won’t have to go through that potentially awkward get-to-know-you-phase. 

“It’s a lot easier to work with a partner you know on something new than it is to go back to scratch on something from zero,” said Little. “You’re already in it; be on the lookout for what more you can do.”  

Little closed the opening Q&A session with a summary of Novo Nordisk’s 2023 ASAP Alliance Excellence Award–winning “Novobird” alliance with 2seventybio. And while that bird has indeed flown, the best synopsis of the key takeaways from his Collaborative Connection Monthly appearance was arguably written on his “Be the Change” T-shirt.  

“I don’t think there’s a better message when we’re talking about ecosystems and culture together,” said Little.