Surveying the Scene of Your Collaborations

Posted By: Jon Lavietes BioPharma Conference,

Self-reflection is a sometimes harsh but very necessary exercise for any individual, division, or company looking to advance in the business world. Unvarnished feedback from associates, clients, bosses—and, in the alliance context, partners—can help crystallize what you are doing right and what you can do better in order to drive broader success. 

In late 2020, Dicerna Pharmaceuticals had developed a number of collaborations with some of the biopharma industry’s most recognized organizations, including Boehringer Ingelheim, Eli Lilly and Company, Roche, Novo Nordisk, and Alexion, that ran the gamut in terms of types, complexity, and scope. The company’s small partnership team was carrying out alliance management practices on a largely project-driven, real-time, and reactive basis.

The Mirror Never Lies to Truth Seekers

Dicerna reached a point where feedback provided during casual conversations and informal interactions could only take them so far. It now sought to put together a rigorous survey of its own employees and those of its partners to solicit undisguised, straightforward commentary on its people and practices—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The objective: “First, hold up a mirror. Second, act on what you learn. Third, persist despite your discomfort—all really important aspects of change management,” recapped Nancy Griffin, CSAP, vice president of alliance management at Dicerna Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in a session titled “Building a Data-Driven Alliance Operating Model” delivered as part of last month’s 2021 ASAP BioPharma Conference.

In tandem with Letizia Amadini-Lane, founder and CEO of LAL Group, who conducts leadership development training, board evaluation, executive, coaching, and alliance consulting on behalf of a variety of organizations, and Electra Hui, project leader and management consultant at Vantage Partners, Dicerna issued a comprehensive survey to 184 executives—118 from partner organizations and 66 of its own employees—to obtain the inside-out perspective on its alliance team and practice.

“If we were going to get a good, robust set of data, we committed to harnessing that data and [using] that as the foundation for our operating model,” said Griffin.

More specifically, Dicerna was hoping to get a deeper look into what the practice does well and how it can better execute against company objectives and meet alliance milestones. In other words, the company sought to be “truth seekers,” in the words of Jessica Goodman, CA-AM, PhD, senior director of alliance management at Dicerna Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

Colors, Call-out Boxes, and Bubbles Paint Fuller Representation of the Data 

Dicerna put together a set of multiple choice, ratings, and free-response questions to capture a variety of qualitative and quantitative insights around three themes: 1) collaboration, 2) execution, and 3) leadership. Goodman said it was important to put yourself in the shoes of the survey respondents and consider the relative length of the exercise and their tolerance for taking the survey. Dicerna took even greater pains to put survey participants at ease by granting Vantage Partners the power and independence to administer the survey, collect results, and keep all answers anonymous, particularly those to the free-response questions. (Respondents were given the option of one-on-one interaction if they were comfortable abdicating anonymity.)

It was now up to Vantage Partners to translate the raw results into actionable insight. Hui created a series of bar charts and column graphs to display the findings of the one-to-five-scale ratings questions, with red and orange indicating scores of one and two, respectively; dark gray representing a neutral three; and teal and navy blue indicating the positive scores of four and five. 

“Consistency and color usage matters,” said Goodman.

Hui augmented each of these graphics with representative excerpts from the free-form responses in call-out boxes and bubbles.

“It made it a fuller representation of the data,” said Goodman.

A Heavy Lift of All Boats

In the coming months, or perhaps even years, Dicerna will be hard at work integrating the pertinent conclusions drawn from the survey into its operating model to meet a few overarching goals as outlined by Goodman:

  • Share and deploy best practices across its alliance portfolio
  • Send consistent messages
  • Align incentives, particularly with partners that have multiple programs
  • Identify systemic challenges and opportunities for improvement
  • Align alliance activities to Dicerna’s larger corporate strategy
  • Optimize allocation of resources across all alliances

Goodman added that, although Dicerna is still early in the process of improving its collaborative capability, this exercise has made it clear to the alliance team that the knowledge gained from this survey will bolster the company’s other divisions since every part of the company depends on its alliance portfolio to some degree.

“We have made the case that if we can do this on alliances, it benefits the entire organization. The whole organization is involved in collaborations, directly or indirectly. All boats float a little higher if you add some improvement,” added Griffin.

However, as valuable as this process has been, Goodman warned attendees that they should prepare to roll up their sleeves if they want to embark on a similar project.

“Survey development sounds deceptively easy, but it’s really not,” she said. “A survey is a heavy lift.”

ASAP BioPharma Conference attendees have one more week to watch “Building a Data-Driven Alliance Operating Model” and several other event presentations. If you missed it during the live event last month, check it out now and find out what aspect of the survey results surprised Griffin and Goodman the most, and learn the difference between a survey and a health check.