Shoulder to Shoulder: The Importance of Collaborative Physician-Industry Relationships
Product development is a critical part of corporate success and growth. A new product can add momentum to an existing product portfolio, or, in the instance of a single-product company, it can set the path for whether a company lives or dies. Collaborative relationships between physicians and industry can be powerful tools toward higher achievement and increased productivity; if the team functions well, the collaboration can deliver real value to patients, significantly boost the product’s effectiveness and performance, and provide great satisfaction to the participants.
One of my favorite sayings is, “A well-defined problem is nearly solved.” An open, collaborative team can deliver amazing results by effectively breaking problems into specific targets and leveraging the talents of physicians and engineers to find solutions with insight and creativity. Collaboration is helpful in vividly bringing the outside world into a corporation.
BEGIN BY ALIGNING EXPECTATIONS
If you have ever driven a car with a tire out of alignment, you have possibly experienced the damage that can result. If a tire is not aligned properly, it wears out faster, the car vibrates, and it ultimately can create other technical problems that increase cost and decrease performance. If not properly resolved, it becomes dangerous, and you may find yourself in the weeds. That is exactly what can happen if physician and industry expectations for collaboration are not properly aligned up front.
Some self-examination is required by all participants in order to align expectations. It is imperative for physicians to determine their collaboration expectations upfront. As a physician you must ask: Do I want to provide strategic input to corporate direction, participate in clinical trials, be embedded with the R&D team, or work directly on specific technical details? Likewise, as a corporate team, it is important to determine the expected level of the collaboration. What is needed from the team, what role will members play, how many members are needed, and when will you need them? Aligning the answers to all of these questions sets the team up for success.
DEFINITION OF SUCCESS
The very definition of collaboration is working together to perform a task and achieve shared goals. Very simply, the definition of success is achieving the goals that the team has set and delivering technology that improves patients’ lives. Is the product buttoned up and well conceived? Was the input properly integrated? Has the effort delivered a commercial success? If the team can respond positively to those questions, it has likely been a successful collaboration.
It is important that physicians, executives, and engineers buy in. In my experience, the greatest successes occur when an entire team works shoulder to shoulder to address challenges and own solutions. I specifically think of the way OptiMedica developed the Liquid Optics Interface. The cross-functional team of physicians, engineers, and marketing, clinical, and quality specialists deeply analyzed the problem and then brainstormed a wide range of potential solutions. Ultimately, an entirely new interface design resulted.
Teamwork requires commitment and participation, and it is most valuable when the collaborating physician deeply analyzes the problems and prepares and delivers well thought-out advice. All team members must be capable of successfully sharing knowledge, learning from one another, and building consensus, so a physician who can participate as a team member and articulate clear positions with respect and candor is incredibly helpful.
The group must also respect the parameters that the team must live within. Projects are typically managed to an endpoint with specific targets for time, resource, and scope, and it is important for participating physicians to recognize this as part of the team’s charter.
A successful partnership is one that leverages all the talents of the group to hit the product target and satisfy customer needs. First and foremost, everyone should check their egos at the door and focus on leveraging the power of the entire team. Additional key elements of success are alignment on the objectives, leveraging of individual talents, insightful understanding of the challenges, open communication and brainstorming, creative thinking, execution with urgency, and passion.
An unsuccessful partnership is one that simply doesn’t hit the targets. That outcome can happen for many reasons. It is debilitating to an effort if the team is not aligned on what they are trying to accomplish, and that can result in a cascade of bad behavior. Additionally, if team members do not work well together, they may overstep their bounds in the collaboration and damage the effort. Clearly, nobody wants to be in this bucket.
The best way to ensure product success is to “begin with the end in mind” and make sure the product delivers real value to patients and their physicians. There is no better way to accomplish this than to deeply involve physicians with the corporate team in a productive, collaborative relationship as the product is defined, developed, and commercialized. The closeness that develops through a shared focus on solving a problem can be exhilarating and very rewarding to experience. n
Mark J. Forchette is the former President and CEO of OptiMedica. Mr. Forchette may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.