Alliance Management Consulting and Training, Partnering Frameworks and Tools, Collaborative Leadership

Top Five Opportunities to Get a Little Better Every Day
1. Partnering Guide / December 5th, 2021     A+ | a-
Earlier this year we published a white paper and gave a number of presentations on Seven Habits of Highly Effective Alliance Professionals Who Deliver Value. We described what these people consistently get right regardless of the purpose or business model of an alliance. One of the habits is a focus on being excellent in the execution of alliance management fundamentals. These core practices include, among others, strategic visioning and alignment, establishing efficient operating models, managing an agile governance process, creating alignment, and of course, good communication. Our experiences over the past few years tell us that too often these fundamentals get short shrift amidst the urgencies of the day, having too many alliances to manage—and in the constraints on working together caused by the pandemic.
The result: alliance professionals who are missing opportunities to deliver value to stakeholders and alliances that aren’t as successful as they should be. Operational excellence is a mindset of getting a little better every day in the fundamentals of your craft—in making the basics just part of the culture and “how work gets done around here”—so that you can focus on higher value activities. It is about moving from good to great.
Herewith are our Top 5 opportunities to help alliance teams be more agile, to make better decisions, and have more valuable and productive partnerships right now. These insights have been gleaned though 1) VitalSigns Alliance Operations Effectiveness Assessments of complex codevelopment, cocommercialization biopharma alliances; 2) baseline assessments of practices against both the Seven Habits and our Alliance Management Foundation model, and 3) numerous roundtables and master classes we’ve conducted over the past two years.
Opportunity One: Strategic Visioning and Alignment, also known as The North Star
What it is:
The North Star, also referred to as the strategic intent of an alliance, is the collective vision or purpose of the alliance, stated in terms of value to patients, partners, and stakeholders, and the experiences all seek relative to that value. The North Star describes what “goodness” is, provides focus, bridges philosophical differences, and helps determine priorities.
Why it matters:
The most successful strategic partnerships have an “entity mindset” where the alliance team members think of themselves as a “company” unto themselves. This mindset is essential for codevelopment, co-commercialization alliances where the operating model must strike an appropriate collaborative balance to reduce inefficiencies while ensuring engagement by the right people at the right time.
The North Star guides decision making, setting priorities, and how resources are allocated. The one-team or entity mindset helps teams coalesce around their patient-focused purpose and ignore parochial considerations that distract from the mission.
When an alliance does not have a clear and aligned strategic vision, including an appropriate understanding of how the partners intend to achieve the vision, it is much easier for an us and them attitude to develop compared with a one team mentality, resulting in churn and challenges bridging philosophical differences about key scientific, development, and commercialization choices.
What’s the opportunity?
As part of the startup process establish a properly visionary North Star statement, endorsed by the Joint Steering Committee (JSC), cascaded through other governance committees, and widely used in messaging about the alliance. It should focus on what will be accomplished for patients, and how the companies will work together, not business results. For example:
“United as one team, we will use our combined expertise and resources to end the suffering of Parkinson’s disease patients and their families.”
In addition to being far more inspirational than a simple “we will develop and commercialize” statement, this North Star tells team members that goodness includes acting as one team; leveraging expertise and resources across the alliance, and being focused on patient outcomes, providing room for patient access and support programs, potentially including digital health applications.
Having a North Star allows an alliance to develop a strategic plan that guides decision making and helps the partners bridge differences in areas that often result in delay-causing disagreements, such as development philosophies and risk tolerances. The North Star evolves over the life of a long-lived alliance as objectives are met. Alliance professionals should include a strategic plan as a Year One activity and update it at appropriate intervals.
Opportunity Two: Efficient Operating Models
What it is:
An alliance or collaboration agreement describes what the partners will do and which partner is responsible for what. It does not describe how they will work together day-to-day to achieve their North Star. For both governance committees and working teams it is essential to establish clarity of roles and responsibilities as well as workflow to avoid duplication of work, heavy-handed review and oversight of work product, and alliance decisions that are overturned by internal governance. How the parties will collaborate is part of a proper chartering process conducted during the startup process and whenever there is a significant change in personnel.
Why it matters:
When teams aren’t operating under a unified understanding of who does what and how the work flows, resources aren’t appropriately leveraged and there are often delays in producing deliverables. If alliance teams develop proposals in isolation and then present them to their partners as a fait accompli, they are inviting their partner to pick it apart, questioning it, and causing defensiveness and multiple reviews. Trust erodes and people feel disrespected, which is not a recipe for a well-functioning alliance.
If the partners have not understood each other’s internal governance and decision making processes and haven’t factored them into the alliance’s decision making, they run the risk of governance decisions being overturned. This weakens the ability of the governance committees to provide appropriate leadership, especially if it happens at the JSC level. It makes people feel disempowered—or that their partner doesn’t have appropriate authority—and leads to workarounds and miscommunication.  
What’s the opportunity?
It is never too late to hold a proper chartering exercise or to update a team’s charter. Not only should it include typical components such as scope, focus, and deliverables; it should address the distribution of work and how it flows. For example, in a consensus decision making environment when the partners want to divide work, they should establish guidelines around planning, conducting, and reviewing the work. This granular level of understanding roles, responsibilities, and accountability helps build trust and helps teams be agile in their approach to the work.
Transparency to internal decision making processes is also essential. With that knowledge, major decisions can be mapped to necessary internal approvals and stakeholders identified and appropriately engaged. Of course, it is up to each partner to manage the process within their own company. It should not be a black box to the alliance. It should be addressed in the startup process, but again it is never too late.
Opportunity Three: Agile Governance Process
What it is:
Governance is the management system of an alliance, providing leadership and direction that guides the work of the alliance. One of the key responsibilities of the alliance professional is to orchestrate and lead the overall governance process, including the participants, preparation, meetings, and communication and action. Governance must be adaptable, agile, and proactive. Serving in governance is a unique role, requiring people to advance the interests of the alliance in order to create value that helps each party advance their individual interests, while at the same time protecting the interests of the party that employs the member. It can be political, with people jockeying to be involved. At times it can also be seen as a burden no one wants to take on.
Why it matters:
An alliance cannot be high performing unless the governance is high performing. The delicate balancing act of an alliance—aligning the strategies, structures, processes, and ways of working of two or more entities to advance work and achieve objectives—requires the organizing mechanism of governance. Its responsibilities for strategizing and planning, decision making, problem solving, holding people and partners accountable, and reviewing progress toward objectives must be carried out in a way that is agile, focusing on the North Star and generating value, and is consistent and predictable so that teams know what to do.  
What’s the opportunity?
Governance committees are slowly starting to get back together face-to-face, recognizing that nearly two years of video meetings have either allowed relationships to fray or have hindered forming new relationships on alliances launched during the pandemic. It is a perfect opportunity to restore or instill some discipline into governance operations, to assume or resume the mantle of leadership, and to implement good decision making practices.
Video meetings have made it easy to let any interested party listen in to governance meetings. This practice is inadvertently undermining effectiveness. Never before have people told us they didn’t know who in a meeting were the actual members of the committee, responsible for participating in the decision making. Even more extreme, some people have said they weren’t sure if they were an actual member! Governance committees are primarily decision making and oversight bodies. They communicate out to alliance teams through meeting minutes and the actions members take back to their subcommittees, working teams, and functions. Their meetings should not be general update meetings for everyone on the alliance.
Help your JSC demonstrate leadership and set the standard for collaborative behavior. People look up. Together with your counterpart, work with the JSC as a team and with members individually to adopt a Collaborative Leadership Agenda identifying behaviors to strive for as a team. Facilitate a start, stop, continue exercise to get specific. Cascade the resulting agenda throughout the alliance, updating charters as necessary. Live the agenda by reviewing it at every governance meeting.     
Opportunity Four: Creating Alignment
What it is:
One of the most important principles of alliance management is establishing and maintaining “common language with shared meaning.” Without it, people talk past each other, thinking they know what the other is saying but discovering they really don’t have shared meaning when they find themselves at odds. Shared meaning implies a similar mental picture. When I say meet me by the tree at the corner of the parking lot, if I am thinking of the pine tree on the east side of the lot and you are picturing the oak tree on the west side, we won’t find each other!
Additionally, complex alliances have dozens, if not hundreds of people involved in the development stage and that only grows exponentially in global commercialization. Turnover of personnel—from the JSC to medical and commercial representatives in the field must be managed to preserve continuity.
Why it matters:
Research shows that at least 90% of misalignments—with the likelihood of value eroding delays—are caused by lack of common language with shared meaning. Misalignment has the potential to destroy trust, with each party thinking the other is not competent or is perhaps pursing a different agenda. Alignment must occur on three dimensions, internally within each team and with corporate governance, but within each partner. The third dimension of alignment is between the partners.
This is not to imply a linear progression of gaining alignment. Sometimes it can be most effective for the joint alliances teams to gain alignment and then “sell it back” into their internal organizations.
Alignment is also jeopardized when new people join a governance committee or alliance team, believing that what serves the alliance is to offer all their ideas about topics already debated and decided. This happens when they have not been properly onboarded to the alliance’s culture and ways of working, the role of their team or committee and its deliverables. Yes, smart people will eventually figure it out, but at what cost?
What’s the opportunity?   
One of the items in the Collaborative Leadership Agenda is to establish and maintain common language with shared meaning. This takes constant work and developing skills and habits to routinely test one another’s understanding. Internal governance preparation meetings should be true working meetings, thinking through the discussion and decisions. For critical decisions, there may be one-on-one meetings between counterparts to hash out differences without a large audience who may not understand the technicalities of an issue. However an alliance chooses to create that three-dimensional alignment it must promote the one-team way of working, and not an us and them mentality.
The primary tool for creating a shared understanding of the basic facts of the alliance and how it operates is quite useful in onboarding new members to the alliance. A briefing book consisting of a summary of the Collaboration Agreement, roster of governance members, charters, and guidance for accessing and using the collaboration’s shared IT site provide the basics. This should live on that collaboration site and be accessible to anyone with a need to know. Alliance professionals should conduct one-on-one sessions with all new governance committee members. It is a great time to let them get to know you and the critical role you play and how they should engage with you, in addition to sharing knowledge of the alliance.
In periods when an alliance is scaling up, such as when it is preparing for commercialization, a good practice is to hold quarterly (or more frequent) open meetings for the alliance professionals to present an overview of the alliance to anyone interested.  
Opportunity Five: Communication, communication, communication
What it is:
Communication is the lifeblood of an alliance. Information has to flow freely enough within the company and between the company and its partners so that team members know what they need to know as they go about their work.  At the same time, inappropriate disclosure must be guarded against. Senior executives must be appropriately briefed to make necessary decisions and engage with their counterparts in direct one-on-one meetings and in industry settings.
Why it matters:
Alliances need a single version of the truth and team members require access to documents such as plans and decision logs. Teams need collaborative work spaces. The era of updating powerpoints and spreadsheets is over. With collaborative work spaces and a digital alliance management platform to democratize information sharing, alliances can truly become data driven, not just about trial results and commercial impact. They can also create transparency into alliance operations, risk management, milestone achievement, upcoming decisions, and any other relevant KPIs.
At the same time that alliances require transparency, there is also a need to establish communication protocols that honor competition and data protection laws and protect the alliance and its partners from risk
What’s the opportunity?
Many alliances establish a communication plan. Many also fail to faithfully execute it. In the startup phase, be realistic and rigorous about how the alliance will communicate—to executives, to bench scientists to front line teams, people in the field, from partner-to-partner. Consider who should be talking with whom, how different topics should be handled, how a single version of the truth for the alliance is maintained, and how access to information is provided. Communication also includes the KPIs that measure performance as well as reporting and dashboards that make the work of the alliance and that of the alliance management professionals visible.
Digitize! Research by Groupe Allianceboard has shown that alliance managers spend nearly half their time on administrative requirements. Another finding is that organizations that lead in their digital infrastructure outperform laggards.[1] Digitizing your practice not only addresses the communication operational excellence opportunity it helps with every other of our top opportunities discussed.
Getting a Little Better Every Day
It is the rare person that maintains the perfect balance of focusing on improvement that will benefit over the longer term that requires work at present with handling the urgencies of the day. The opportunities that we consistently see in our assessments and evaluations of alliances and alliance management practices say that there are a few things where it is worth the effort to build excellence because of the outsized returns they produce. Think about your portfolio, start by picking one opportunity for excellence, and work on getting a little bit better at it, every day.  
[1] Rinfet, L. and Roch, M., “Digital maturity and the evolving importance of alliance management in the biopharma sector,” ASAP 2021 Biopharma Conference, September 27, 2021
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