Forget Thinking Outside The Box

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Today’s installment is – 6 tips on how to step out of the box – because after all, if you can think outside the box, why not take the plunge and leave that old box behind? At work or at play. .

You know you have experienced this. You get your team in a room. You have lots of post-its, the wall is covered with packing paper, you have felt markers and biscuits on the table and you are ready to tackle your team’s big challenge. It might have been any one of the following common Medical Affairs/Pharma topics: expanding market access, stakeholder engagement, patient advisory boards, improving scientific content delivery to your markets, social media engagement and compliance, accessing the 10% of the patients that are currently on a competitor’s product to ensure they get the best possible treatment, if ours, is in fact the best treatment for them of course.

Right are you with me? What happens then is, everyone is happily chewing on their felt-tipped pens and feverishly writing on post-it notes, and as a team you can feel that the break-through is just around the corner, when you start grouping the post-it notes on the wrapping paper on the walls. And that is when it happens:

Jane, who is new to the company, and invariably young, or young at heart, gets up and sticks her post-it on the wall. It’s a long one, it reads: “there is a population of patients in our country, who due to language and integration issues, may currently be underdiagnosed and hence not benefiting from treatment with our product. Can we engage with that community in creative ways to provide access to our product, improve patient outcomes and expand access?”

The rest of team looks at the post-it and says “Na, can’t be done, we’ve never done that before” or “No, that would never work at insert name of company here” – and at the end of the afternoon you have a list of activities that includes advisory boards, market research, newsletter writing, educational events, in other words a list you could have written without ever having a “thinking out of the box experience”.

The reason it went wrong is that your workshop title was not aspirational enough. And you failed to put down ground-rules. You don’t want to think outside of the box, you want to get out of the box.

The truth of the matter is we like boxes. They make us feel safe. By saying “nope, won’t work, we’ve never done it before ” we are saying, we know the box, we like the box, the box is cosy. It may be a box, but, it’s our box”.

Naturally boxes can be useful. In some situations, but you need to make sure you know which situation you are in.

For example, ,any patients with a mental health diagnosis, such an autism spectrum or bipolar II diagnosis, which can take years to diagnose, feel relieved when they finally know what is going on.

In this situation, the box functions as a container allowing variables to be connected and addressed that previously were unlinked and therefore had significant power to derail a person’s life. Finally, the patient feels more in control.

In pharma the box situation is different. Here teams are so used to working within their daily constraints, including compliance concerns, budgetary and resource restrictions, or the threat of imminent reorganization, that these are accepted as immutable.

In this situation the box is not giving the content structure, but it is keeping things out and limiting possibilities. This is when you need to question the box and consider stepping outside.

So how do you step out of the box? Especially, if as highlighted above, you may not know you are in one?

Funnily enough in all my years of hearing the phrase “think outside the box” no time has ever been spent on defining the box we are going to be thinking outside.

Seneca is quoted as having said “if you don’t know your destination, no wind is favourable”. The same can be said of the box ” if you don’t know the name of your box, how can you think, or indeed, step outside it?

So here are my suggestions for stepping out of the box.

First, discuss with the team, do you have a box? If so, do you like the box. What don’t you like. Agree with the team what the general qualities of the box are. You’d be surprised at how perceptions vary across team members.

Second, what is the box made of? What are the walls, what are the floors, can you in fact get rid of the box, step outside, swop it for a bigger one, do away with it all together?

Third, capture all suggestions, and I do mean all, even the ones you immediately think are no good.

Fourth, flag the ideas that capture what you are doing already (AD boards, communication campaigns, data-analytics etc. ) – this will help you track if you are still in the box

Fifth, make anyone who says “it’s a great idea, but we haven’t got the headcount, the IT systems, the budget, the knowhow….etc.” do 14 push-ups as a penance. Yes, I am joking. But only a bit. The problem is never the budget, the know-how or the resource, if you can identify what you want to do, why you need to do it, and what the business benefits will be, tangible benefits of course, I guarantee you will find the resources. Often creative solutions mean you can do exciting things with an eminently sensible budget.

Sixth, consider having an outsider there. This could be a consultant, like me, who can help you steer into uncharted waters, or someone from another department, who knows enough about what you do, to be able to challenge your thinking.

Please share your out-of-the-box experiences with me, I’d love to hear them.