If You Want to Go Far, Go Together
Navigating Differences in Communication, Culture, Personality, Distance, and Language in Multinational Project Teams
Having successfully executed over 70 integrated programs with customers, Piramal Pharma Solutions has ample experience in managing multinational project teams. This article presents some key takeaways of the learnings that have been identified during the programs.
Piramal Pharma Solutions (PPS) has experienced dramatic growth having served over 500 customers in FY18 and achieved a 7-year revenue CAGR of 16%. We have helped launch 34 new chemical entities (NCE’s) for customers to market, and expect to launch another 10 this year, with an additional 110 late-stage programs (phase II/III) in clinical development. This rapid growth, fueled by both NCE launches and the development pipeline, is managed between 11 PPS locations; approximately half of them are located in the East (principally India) and the rest in the West (3 sites in North America, 2 in Europe). One of the fastest growing areas in terms of customer interest is integrated partnerships. These integrated programs typically involve more than a single site, are spread across geographies, and always involve more than one capability (i.e. drug substance/product).
Single Point of Contact
A single point of contact (SPOC) helps provide accountability, which is of vital importance to the customer. A single point of contact for both the customer and vendor also helps minimize confusion and cross talk. This point of contact could be a business development person or a program manager (fig. 1). In multi-national project teams these contacts serve to distribute information within their teams and also collate feedback. For cultural fits and communication within the same time zone, one can consider having the SPOC’s for both partners to be located in the same region.
Communication in General
At PPS, we have analyzed programs that have gone very well and ones where we have identified areas for improvement. The common denominator that underlines successful programs is clear verbal and written communication between both parties, and a commitment to make the project successful. When in doubt, we encourage “more” communication between partner and the vendor, especially when dealing with multi-cultural teams. For all programs, we at the minimum, recommend regularly schedule bi weekly calls.
We have a large pharma client based out of Europe who is carrying out multiple integrated development programs from two of our sites in India, and our site in the UK. While a recurring phone call is scheduled to monitor program progress and address challenges, the client also makes quarterly site visits for a face to face interaction with the PPS development teams. These visits have led to a strong relationship between the two teams, seamless communication channels and strong results.
Even if project teams have a SPOC from the same culture/time zone, regular interactions with team members from other cultures and nationalities are a necessity. Some things to consider: importance of hierarchy in Asia, directness in conversations out of West, consensus based decision making vs directed decision making and understanding what is being conveyed as opposed to what is being said, among others. Since this is a topic that requires a write up of its own, we will simply state that, in our experience we have found that partnerships, which recognize these differences and patiently work through them, are the most successful.
Written and verbal communication is key towards progress and execution of any project. Each customer partnership is unique and communication needs should be customized for best results. Nevertheless, it is imperative that good English skills are essential for any western collaboration. We have an internal learning and development program that all customer facing personnel, whose first language is not English, go through. In addition, if we have personnel that have experience with a particular region (say Japan or certain European regions) and know the local language, we make them a central part of customer interactions.
Travel to Customer Sites
Over the past few years, we have seen customers who we have long-term relationships with invite key Piramal program and project team members to visit their sites. This allows the vendor to meet with all project team members from the customer side. This reciprocal arrangement of the typical face-to-face meeting, where customers visit CMO sites, is a positive trend that leads to stronger connection between the teams
Review of Collaboration
For key strategic partnerships that involve multi-national teams and several disciplines, PPS carries out a minimum of two meetings in a year at a senior management level with the partner. We have found these meetings to be very beneficial, as the intent is to further strengthen the areas that have gone well, while focusing on what needs to be done from a management level to address any challenges. Key decisions on new hires, any changes in project team structure, investment needs on people/capabilities are all identified during these meetings. We then review progress regularly until the next formal get-together.
While it is important to focus on the details above while managing multinational projects, it is equally important to make this a part of the fabric of the organization. At Piramal, we have a simple and clear mission: to assist our customers and patients by reducing the burden of disease. We are here to make our customers succeed by getting medicines to patients rapidly and cost effectively. We expect to do this by building around the three pillars that form our foundation: customer centricity, quality, and innovation. For ensuring a culture that puts customers first Piramal has a unique organogram (fig. 2). Our organizational structure is not defined by hierarchy or by our management. We have the customer at the center of our internal organogram. All functions work for the customer, report to the customer, and are focused on delivering a differentiated experience to the customer. This philosophy is instilled from the shop floor to the executive suite and has played a key role in our significant growth.
To summarize, managing multinational programs and teams brings some unique challenges. While some of these can be addressed at a macro level, others require customized solutions. For example, biotech and big pharma collaborations are different since biotech companies quite often use consultants, while big pharma has their own teams. A partner who understands the potential issues that may arise, and works collaboratively towards solutions by keeping the customer first, is essential for a successful relationship. Once the issues are worked out, these multinational partnerships make for some of the best success stories: if you want to go fast, go alone…if you want to go far, go together!