Article by David Townson, Global Oncology Executive Director, Novartis

by David Townson

For those practitioners in the field of Portfolio Management an interesting article can be found in Forbes'.com written by Bruce Booth, “If I Were a Big Pharma Head of R&D…”. The article offers a perspective on the productivity problems with the pharmaceutical industry, and most interestingly, proposed solutions – many of which fall within the purview of Portfolio Management.

Mr. Booth cites the “ossified, risk-avoiding, ‘analysis-paralysis’ culture” as a major contributor to the lack of productivity in big pharma and there is more than a subtle pointing-the-finger at field of Portfolio Management. Interestingly, the article paradoxically cites the strength of the various tools of analysis that are used commonly in Portfolio Management – which he believes have become “nearly un-challengeable” – as a key culprit for the productivity dilemma. These systems, processes, and people responsible for helping organizations understand the risks, values, and opportunities within their portfolios have essentially lobotomized our leaders. One gets the vision of our cowering risk-averse big pharma leaders being presented with a one-sided view with systems that practically make the decisions for them by pre-defining rules for investment decision-making, essentially leaving their hands-tied. By objectively (and admittedly not always accurately) measuring risk, value, and probabilities Portfolio Management has removed the risk-taking from R&D.

But I see it differently. Portfolio Management informs decision-makers of the potential risks, value, and probabilities of success of its various assets. However, if our leaders are incentivized to deliver short-term “productivity” (a term which is not static in itself) at the expense of funding the future it is not the Portfolio Management systems which are at fault, but rather it is the forces that define what “productivity” is for that company, at that time, which hold responsibility. If I decide not to embark upon a trip when a hurricane is forecasted to hit the area I don’t blame the weather forecaster for informing me of the risk do I? Regardless of whether the carrot-holder for big pharma’s leaders is Wall Street, a Board of Directors, or whomever, Portfolio Management, if done correctly, does not stack the deck for or against any one type of investment. And here is where I find myself agreeing with Mr. Booth: The productivity gaps that many companies are suffering have been the result of a mindset bent on defining “productivity” using too many short-term measures at the expense of a more sustainable approach which would take more risk, albeit, intelligently.

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