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Serving multiple masters: pharma’s evolving product management needs

Serving multiple masters: pharma’s evolving product management needs


The pharma industry is continuously striving to be more customer-led in its activities, but the healthcare ecosystem is complex, meaning that product teams must consider the relative needs of a whole range of stakeholders. Here, drawing on new research, Malte Scholz of airfocus discusses what’s needed today to navigate and balance those differing priorities.
  • Author Company: airfocus
  • Author Name: Malte Scholz, founder and CEO
  • Author Website: airfocus
Editor: PharmiWeb Editor Last Updated: 26-Nov-2021

For all that pharma organisations claim to have refocused their efforts around customers over the last decade or more, mapping new developments to tangible outcomes isn’t easy.

In pharma, this challenge is particularly acute due to the diversity of stakeholders with views on what they want from next-generation products. In addition to the ultimate customers (patients), physicians, speciality clinicians, regulators, payers and insurers all have their own priorities and measures of product value.

Yet, remarkably, product teams on the whole remain poorly served by tools for collating all of this feedback, and organising and prioritising the work they do. This was confirmed recently in new independent research conducted for airfocus in the UK and in the US. The survey, conducted in September 2021, polled 300 product managers/owners/directors across sectors about their changing roles and requirements. The research base, which spanned six main industries, included more than 40 companies in pharma.

Pharma-specific product management challenges

In the research, the top operational challenges for pharma product teams were identified as (1) ‘Defining a strong and well-communicated product strategy’; (2) ‘Becoming more efficient to deliver more features more quickly’; and (3, jointly) ‘Prioritising the right initiatives’ and ‘The need to innovate at a faster pace’.

Prioritisation is a particular issue in pharma, with so many taskmasters to satisfy. Communication and alignment with different stakeholders was felt to be an issue for 27% of product managers in this sector, compared to 21% of those working in FMCG, for instance, while 41% of those working in pharma product management claimed that currently most of their time is spent liaising with customers.

Pharma product managers, above their peers in other industries, felt called to raise their game during the pandemic too: 54% of product managers working in pharma had found it a struggle to collaborate with other stakeholders when working mostly from home, while 51% had seen an increase in pressure to launch new features with greater speed.

Across all respondents, four in 10 stated that the role of product management is becoming more prominent strategically – rising to almost half (49%) of pharma product managers. However this hasn’t yet translated to the implementation of appropriate tools to support their decision-making.

Post-It notes persist

Today, almost as many product teams rely on a system of Post-It notes on the wall (30%) as have access to dedicated product management technology (31%). In pharma, use of the communications tool Slack was noticeably prominent.

Even where product teams do have access to specialist product management technology, pharma product managers cite a lack of relevant features and functionality (mentioned by 63% in the survey), poor usability (by 54%), and a lack of tailoring of capabilities to their specific needs and ways of working (by 44%).

Capabilities sought by pharma product managers

Pharma product managers were particularly keen on having a means of streamlining team workflows and product execution, and of simplifying the creation of product roadmaps – both qualities sought by almost four in 10 of product managers in the sector.

When choosing a product management platform, the main qualities product managers look for were found to be support for easy and effective prioritisation (ranked particularly highly by pharma product managers, who most often were juggling the insights and requests of 11-15 different stakeholders); the ability to create clear roadmaps; easy adoption by users; and modularity/flexibility to choose relevant features. Simplicity emerged as a particularly strong priority overall.

As companies continue to plan for the post-pandemic recovery, with innovative customer-focused products at their core, identifying the capabilities that will best serve that goal should be a strategic priority.