“Gen Z professionals have a low tolerance for inefficiency and are not going to allow their boomer bosses to remain selective luddites.”

That’s how the breakfast conversation began earlier this month between my Gen Z son and his boomer parents.

To put this in context, you need to know that it was yet another rainy holiday weekend in New England, and we had already tested the limits of our togetherness. So this declarative headline was an appealing distraction.

He went on to share that, in his view, people of a certain generation, who are used to doing things a certain way, are certain to slow down the (better) ways things “could be done.”

To be sure, he was quick to clarify. He recognized that leaders “of that certain generation” do have a unique wealth of expertise (thank you very much) that cannot be replicated simply by embracing technology; they/[we] came up through the ranks in a different way and at a different time.

But his urging – “outcome matters more than the output; let people contribute in a way that makes sense for the situation, even if it doesn’t make sense to you – reflected a profound desire to leverage the tried-and-tested knowledgebase of proven figures (in biopharma and beyond) in a way that allowed those learned lessons to translate to the next generation in a language they can understand.

Beyond the not uncommon inter-generational critique, his sentiment captured a related thought I had been having about our biopharma industry.

We face an asynchronous challenge where our most seasoned senior leaders are often the least equipped to stay current on the rapidly changing innovations that will drive the industry of the future. Add to that the challenges in the smallest emerging biopharma companies where the focus on executing the development strategy without taking on risk can be the difference between survival (of patients, companies, and careers) and failure.

These observations were overwhelmingly clear at a recent Future Pharma conference where I spoke about commercialization planning and how the Corval platform applies innovation while The NemetzGroup consultancy applies wisdom and human judgment.

The conference was uplifting, and I was in awe of the energy, enthusiasm, and creativity presented in numerous presentations regarding what is increasingly possible: to rapidly understand markets, apply deep data analytics, and ensure unstructured data becomes valuable insight quickly. Many of the target companies of these presentations are larger pharma who can perhaps better “bear the risk” of innovation.

This conundrum of the intergenerational disconnect (both human and company stage) in the biopharma industry brings me to think about the conversation we should be having about:

    1. Risk tolerance
    2. Transformative innovation
    3. Openness and relevance

An Intersection of Three Areas

We know the biopharma industry stands at the forefront of cutting-edge medical advancements, revolutionizing healthcare with innovative therapies and life-saving treatments. Within this dynamic sector, the intersection of risk tolerance, innovation, and openness to change plays a pivotal role in shaping the industry’s future.

However, as my conversation with my son highlights, the perspectives on these critical factors can vary significantly between senior executives from one generation and younger professionals, and from large pharma to emerging biopharma.


#1. Risk Tolerance

Risk tolerance is a crucial reality of the biopharma industry. Groundbreaking research and development efforts often come with substantial uncertainties in the areas of science, financing, regulatory, and commercialization.

Senior executives have extensive experience and long-standing industry knowledge. They have witnessed the challenges associated with high R&D costs, regulatory hurdles, and the unpredictable nature of clinical trials. It makes sense for them to adopt a more conservative approach, prioritizing incremental innovation and well-established business models.

On the other hand, Gen Z professionals often exhibit higher risk tolerance. They grew up in an era of rapid technological advancement and tend to embrace disruption, thrive in ambiguity (except when it relates to their careers), and be more willing to challenge traditional paradigms. Their eagerness to push boundaries can lead to breakthrough innovations that shape the future of our industry.

Is it realistic to welcome both perspectives? Or are they, by definition, in conflict?

#2 Transformative Innovation

Innovation is the lifeblood of the biopharma industry. While certainly aware of this, seasoned executives tend to emphasize an approach that builds on existing successes that optimize precedent and verified strategies. Their need to appeal to the investor audience with “proven” teams and approaches further cements this tried-and-true orientation.

Conversely, the younger generation of professionals is more likely to embrace emerging technologies. Gen Zers, in particular, have an affinity for technology-driven solutions that, combined with their diverse skill sets, may enable them to identify unmet (or unseen) needs and develop transformative therapies or overhaul work processes that could reshape the biopharma landscape.

What does the conversation need to include to get the best of both?

#3. Openness and Relevance

Even if we understand our tolerance for risk and innovative opportunities, how open are we to incorporate these opportunities into our work practice and make them relevant?

Senior executives may display a more cautious stance towards novel approaches. While this ensures predictability in the highly regulated environment in which we operate, it can inadvertently impede the uptake of potentially game-changing innovations or approaches. Is the question, how do we improve or how do we overhaul?

Gen Z professionals are unburdened by historical precedent. We may need to free them and ourselves so that together, we can accelerate the pace of innovation and enhance company and patient outcomes.

How can we understand and think about transformational changes and know whether they are applicable? And, when they are, how do we know if we are ready to accept them?

Bringing This In-House

We are living in truly transformational times, and that is even before we begin to grasp what AI (artificial intelligence) may do to change our world. While I recognize that much thinking still needs to be done to fully understand technology implications and to mitigate downsides, I also believe there is more we can do to move faster, work differently, and focus more of our attention on solving complex problems faced by the patients we strive to serve.

To address patient needs with our scientific innovations, we also need to solve our own business challenges by moving fast when and where we can.

How do we…

… ensure external partners/consultants are current and driving innovation in their recommendations to us?

… identify diverse cross-functional “idea teams” that can rapidly imagine the possibilities?

… consider internal mixed generational forums such as mock “Shark Tank” panels to get the right ideas presented with the right context so we can make decisions quickly?

… mentor young people on the core essentials of the biopharma industry and the absolutes (laws of science and government), and then seek their insights on the rest?

… ensure senior leaders are not luddites in using technology and that we all stay focused on “outcomes more than output?”