Is Whac-A-Mole Rampant in Your Organization?

by Susan Nemetz, October 2017

At the risk of dating myself, do you remember the arcade game Whac-A-Mole? The concept was simple: Using a soft mallet, a player would hit the heads of plastic “moles” as they popped up at random from a machine. The more whacks you completed in the time allotted, the higher your score.

I don’t know whose idea it was to offer this game to children(!), but in the world of biopharma, it has become an all too familiar metaphor for the way many middle (and sometimes, senior) leaders survive the day.

The key difference is that in the case of biopharma leaders, the moles are not plastic toys… they are tasks: constant requests for updates, executive team briefings, dashboards, budgets, prep then delivery of BOD presentations, and a seemingly endless demand for information of every shape and size regarding every possible future scenario upside, downside, base case, and impossible dream. No wonder no one has time to think!

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. If it doesn’t sound familiar, you may be the one who is causing the Whac-A-Mole dynamic among your team members. Wherever you fit in the mix, this phenomenon is a regrettable waste of time, resources, and intellectual capital.

It’s time to retire Whac-A-Mole

    The arguments defending this game are many:
  • Boston biotech is inherently fast-paced. People need to keep up and be able to respond to multiple stakeholder needs.
  • We live in a 24/7 world. Chaos is simply the reality of the 21st century workplace.
  • The competition has never been fiercer and funding is scarce. To slow down is to risk being overtaken.
  • It is all about the patients. Whatever it takes, we must persevere.

These points are all true. What’s also true, however, is that despite the pressures built into our respective work lives, leadership (which means you) can lessen the burden. Rather than remaining desensitized to the problem and assuming it just is, you can make things better and move even faster and more directly to the ultimate goal of improving the lives of patients.

The solution? Stop and pause — think about what you really want, plan ahead, talk to your team about the real questions that need to be answered, and how to get the work done. By taking the time to map out the likely needs and plans your organization will require over the next year (and indeed, the entire life of a drug in development), you can improve results while reducing the strain on those involved.

Relatively minimal but thoughtful effort can improve the contributions from the organization

Let’s be honest with one another! The work should inform decisions vs. just be “work.”

You know you are going to do a long-range plan. You know you have quarterly Board meetings. You know you are going to create an annual budget with a workforce planning component. You know that your amazing drug is going to get approved and that once it does you (or a trusted partner) are going to launch it.

So why not map all of this out? Wouldn’t it make sense for a small group of leaders in your organization to spend time developing a planning calendar with key decisions that need to be made and then creating a shared list of assumptions and core content to guide the processes that you know are coming?

For many leaders, the end goal — bringing the drug to market — is the sole area of focus. This “eye on the prize” mentality to the exclusion of everything else overlooks the people and processes needed to get thereand does little to align the company in a way that creates real long-term value.

Furthermore, given how smart, dedicated, and hard-working your people are, don’t you think they would perform better if you consistently and effectively communicated the broader vision to them? This way, instead of simply chasing the “moles of the day,” they would have the perspective and information required to improve and streamline the overall effort.

Please walk a mile in their shoes — they are under water (sorry for the mixed metaphors — this is what I do). We are burning out our most precious resource — our people — and much of it is avoidable. Their work, unlike that of most other industries, literally saves lives. Wasted time delays the delivery of new drugs to the patients who so desperately need them and lengthens the time required to undertake more research. The delays are costing all of us, today and tomorrow.

We can do better — and we must, if we truly hope to change the game.