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Key clinical research industry problems stem from dysfunctional, indecisive teams
Experts offer behavioral-based solutions
The clinical research industry's paralyzing delays, millions of dollars wasted on dead ends, and resource inefficiencies are the result of faulty team mechanics, several experts say.
The pharmaceutical-biotech industry has an alarmingly high rate of failure on all projects, and three-quarters of the industry's revenue now comes from collaborations, which means there are systematic team and communication problems, says Curtis Sprouse, president and chief executive officer of EurekaConnect and Boston Market Strategies of Ipswich, MA.
"The quickest way for these companies to build research and development is to salvage and save more of these collaborations and alliances," he adds. "They need to manage better what they have, and it's all affected by individual and team behavior."
First, organizations need to know where their problems lie.
"With this industry in general what we have found is that the problem is not the talent; it's not the lack of ability; it's the mechanics that need to be tweaked," says Ross Giombetti, MBA, vice president of Giombetti Associates in Hampden, MA. Giombetti is a Six Sigma Greenbelt.
Giombetti and colleagues analyze team performance and team members' behavior in the clinical research industry, helping companies improve their efficiency and develop high performance teams. The assessment takes 20-minutes, per-person, analyzing reflectivity, delegation, discipline, collaboration, avoidance, accommodation, communication, and other social skills. Called Performance Dynamics, developed by Giombetti Associates and Behavioral Dynamics of EurekaConnect, these types of assessments provide insight into what is causing a particular company or team's delays and obstacles.
"We analyze 17 characteristics, mapping these and drawing a graph," Sprouse says.
"We also look at influence models and three internal behaviors that drive how we influence people," he says.
One telling trend appeared during assessments of research teams.
"Our research validates that this industry has the talent, intelligence, science, and compassion to solve any problem that comes its way," Giombetti says. "But there's a systemic problem caused by their actions and behavior."
Taking this observation to the micro level, you could blame most of the industry's problems on passive-aggressive behavior or the proverbial bad apples.
"We see passive-aggressive behavior on every team we interact with," Giombetti says. "What's commonly seen in this industry is what we refer to as the cholesterol of the industry because it blocks their ability to survive and live."
Passive aggressive behavior hinders progress and can be the demise of whole projects," says Kara Cleveland, a principal with Colby Management Group, a San Antonio, TX, biotech/pharma/IT consulting company. Cleveland has used the Performance Dynamics assessment to analyze a collaborative research team's performance and found it to be very accurate and useful.
"People don't realize how much it undermines the process of what needs to be done," she adds. "Aren't we here to get drugs to market?"
Yet, some bad apples hinder the process for their own personal and political gain.
While passive-aggressive behavior among team members is not rare, there is a strikingly high amount of this behavior in the research industry, experts say.
"People are either afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of hurting other people's feelings, or they just don't like conflict," Giombetti says. "So as a result they don't deal with real issues directly and operate more behind the scenes subtly, and the real result is a lack of trust."
Research professionals are afraid of exposing themselves and putting themselves out there, Sprouse says.
This type of behavior also becomes indecisiveness, which contributes to delays and blockages in the research pipeline.
Another common issue involving research teams is the way leaders are selected. The research industry tends to reward scientific excellence based on knowledge and experience, but not leadership.
"If someone is a great scientist, we will tolerate bad behavior, and that's a fundamental problem," Sprouse says.
Sprouse consults with companies to provide team-building guidance after each team and individual members are assessed for leadership, team-enhancing, and maladaptive behaviors.
"I worked with one team in its 18th year of collaboration, and the product was not on the market yet," Sprouse recalls. "I said, 'Do you think this is normal?' And they said, 'Yes. It's how long we take to get something done.'"
The research industry possibly is unique in tolerating and even accepting that type of delay. The industry will be able to change this counterproductive culture and legacy only after addressing dysfunctional team behaviors, Sprouse and Giombetti say.
The key is that individuals and teams can change their behavior and dynamics, and if they change, so can the industry improve.
Sprouse offers this example: he worked with a man who had 25 years of experience and a number of important professional and personal skills. Yet his bad behavior was hurting the team and reducing its productivity. The behavioral specialist showed the man data explaining how the man was seen as a know-it-all who spent almost no time listening to others.
"He said to me, 'No one ever told me I'm a jerk;' You defined for me why I'm a jerk," Sprouse recalls.
The man did not realize he was jeopardizing the team's success.
"They were considering getting him off the team because his performance was unacceptable," Sprouse says.
But after the individual profile in which the man heard objective feedback about his strengths and weaknesses with regard to his behavior on the team, he turned everything around, quickly becoming a key member of the team.
"Intellectually, we helped him see why people didn't like him," Sprouse says. "His listening scores were awful, and no one had taken the time to tell him where his deficiencies were."
This example is emblematic of what the research industry is facing right now, he notes.
"Because of behavioral dynamics, the industry has an underlying condition that is dangerous to teams, and they're doing nothing to manage it," he says. "We talk to heads of pharma companies, and they think they're different, but these behavioral traits go across the industry."
On a positive note, research teams also are very bright and are capable of making measurable and relevant change quickly, Sprouse says.
"But management has to recognize they need to define the situation and take action based on specific team needs, alliances, and collaborations," he adds.
The first step is to assess teams for their performance motivation and obstacles to success.
When problems occur because of one or more team members' behavior then management should require the team members to correct the problematic behavior or have them moved off the team, Sprouse says.
"When you have a bad apple, can this person be developed into a proficient player?" he says. "Make them a contributing member of the team if you can."
The assessment also can help leaders improve their own deficiencies.
For instance, Cleveland learned from her own assessment that she was very high in leadership qualities, but was low in goodwill. This was in the context of a team that had a high number of people with very high goodwill scores, high accommodation scores, and low scores on the leadership qualities involving competitiveness and decision-making. While Cleveland's approach on the team was assertive and goal-driven, many team members had qualities that point to passive-aggressive behavior. This also meant that goodwill was highly valued on the team.
Cleveland's no-nonsense management approach was viewed negatively by some members of the team, and she learned that she might elicit better responses from them by improving her goodwill.
"I had to address things in my personality that I didn't realize were affecting people," Cleveland says.
Cleveland shared her personal profile with the team and encouraged joking and advice. One member said the behavior attributed to Cleveland was right on target and even gave an example of when she had behaved exactly that way.
"I was able to show everyone that this was an issue I have and they could call me on it," she adds.
Goodwill isn't the most important trait on a team or in leadership, but it should be a part of a team dynamic, Sprouse notes.
"It's the human way of doing things, showing you care more about the individual than what they produced for you in the last five minutes," Sprouse says. "You'll react much better to me if I take some interest in you; it's human nature."
It's also wiser: "By knowing a team member better, you know when it's appropriate to push and when it's not appropriate," he says.
"These subtleties are lost on many of these teams, especially in heavily scientific and technical groups that are driven by numbers, facts, and are heavily analytic," Sprouse says. "I've had a lead scientist on research and development programs tell me it doesn't matter what these people are like; it only matters that they know science."