Dave Allen discusses how scenario planning helps to define uncertainty in pharma

With the publication of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s ‘Future of Chemistry’ scenarios this month, it seems appropriate to reflect on some of the key features of scenario planning and why this tool is so valuable in the pharmaceutical industry.

Fundamentally, the role of scenario planning in industry and the recent activities conducted by the RSC are very similar in intent. The RSC’s motivation is to remain a highly relevant and important part of the chemistry community and to serve the future needs of its members. Similarly, within the pharmaceutical industry we are striving to remain a highly relevant part of the healthcare system and to serve the future needs of patients.

Looking ahead

We work on potential medicines that have a 10–12 year lead time. That means we must create a trajectory for those medicines based on unmet patient needs, future healthcare environments, competitors’ portfolios, generic entries and projected costs. This trajectory needs to meet reality at some point in an as-yet undefined and distant future. Clearly, keeping our options open is vital – but so is timely and cost-effective decision making. While our scientists are encouraged to be single-minded in the pursuit of their projects and in championing their area of science, they are also required to respond to evolving, dynamic situations when the world changes in an unexpected way. It is inevitable that something unpredictable will happen during drug discovery and development. Scenario planning helps ensure we stay attuned to such changes and that we can respond more nimbly to these events.

We must remember that scenarios do not shape the future: they simply help us prepare for it

Scenarios also help us to change our thinking. Generally, we all have a ‘self-centred’ view of the universe: individuals, teams, departments and whole organisations put themselves at the centre of their plans and map out the future from where they are today. This is reflected in everything from stakeholder maps and hub-and-spoke models to organisational charts. It’s understandable, but means rich information sources may be overlooked. In the pharmaceutical industry we have many stakeholders, including regulators, payers, prescribers and patients. We must therefore challenge ourselves to look at our projects from these groups’ perspectives: if we create future scenarios that put these groups at the centre of the universe, does our view of risks and options change? Have we explored models that change the relative importance of each stakeholder and their interactions with each other? And have we tested our strategies against these multiple potential futures to ensure we have credible options and solutions? We will never be able to cover all possible scenarios, but we can at least make informed decisions that are consistent with desired outcomes – whether they are based on value, risk mitigation or some other parameter.

Flexible thinking

A major pitfall to avoid is ‘groupthink’. It’s good to have a common narrative to align behind, but it is essential that this is challenged periodically by a range of people and perspectives: not only from different stakeholders, but also from diverse representatives within the same discipline. In particular, we must use provocateurs and non-believers within our own organisations to challenge our thinking and stress-test scenarios. It can also be stimulating to gain an external perspective from a futurologist. Although these experts are not usually specialists in the chemical and pharmaceutical sciences, they can highlight general themes that are applicable to any industry, and allow us to consider new and interesting avenues.

Finally, we must remember that scenarios do not shape the future: they simply help us prepare for it. By building plans to allow for various scenarios, we are able to make risk-adjusted decisions to give us the best possible outcomes. Options can be either accelerated (often at risk), sequentially enabled or closed off, but in all cases the implications of each decision are implicitly known, recognised and agreed as being appropriate based on the information at that time.

As the RSC’s project shows, scenario planning is a tool, not a destination. It may seem an iterative exercise, but it is one that can be of tremendous value.

Dave Allen is senior vice president, respiratory therapy area and GSK chief chemist