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6 Rules for Coping With Brutal Disruption in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Brutal Disruption in the Pharmaceutical Industry

In a world of ever-increasing and sometimes unpredictable change, it has never been more important for pharmaceutical companies to bounce back stronger from “brutal disruptions.”

The trouble with the old adages, “proper planning prevents poor performance” and “fail to plan, plan to fail,” is that planning only works when you have an idea of what’s coming. If proper planning no longer guarantees good performance, how can you prepare for an era of brutal disruption in the pharmaceutical industry?

What Is a Brutal Disruption?

Brutal disruptions are events that:

  • Are potentially very large
  • Will have resounding impact on everything we do
  • Are truly life changing
  • Are impossible to predicted with certainty; you don’t see them coming and you have no plans in place to handle them

Brutal disruptions will probably happen annually in the pharmaceutical industry. We need to get used to them so that we can protect ourselves and the legacy and reputation of our businesses. When the next brutal disruption occurs, here are six rules that can help.

6 Rules to Help Pharmaceutical Professionals Bounce Back Stronger From Brutal Disruptions

Rule One: Create a Bounce-Back Culture

When the unexpected happens in the pharmaceutical industry, you need full engagement across your entire workforce. This means everyone in the organisation is working as one and not fearful of the future. Here are three signs that indicate a bounce-back culture:

  • Open and transparent with excellent communication throughout
  • Blame-free from top to bottom
  • Free of silos and superfluous bureaucracies
  • Visible leadership that is accessible and authentic
  • Highly motivated employees who care about what they do.


  • To see if you have a bounce-back culture, check out NSF’s “health check” for a diagnosis and answers. 
  • If you want simple guidance on how to achieve a blame-free culture, watch NSF’s five-minute video. 
  • Keep a positive attitude about errors and mistakes - in turbulent times you’re going to make lots.

Rule Two: Excel at Brutal Simplification

To bounce back quickly, it is critical to have simple processes, systems and documentation. Complexity confuses, slows everything down and increases the risk of errors and mistakes. Surviving a disruption in the pharmaceutical industry is about speed, adaptability and agility meaning that you must brutally simplify everything.


  • Watch this short webinar, or read this white paper on simplification.
  • Complexity is the sign of lazy thinking. Good thinkers are good simplifiers. The more you simplify, the faster you will react when the unexpected happens.

Rule Three: Establish an Excellent Network Built on Trust and Respect

When you’re experiencing brutal disruptions, surround yourself with trusted professionals who have the knowledge and skills you need.


  • Make building strong networks, internal and external, a priority and an active process.
  • Transaction-based networks - formed on the assumption that if you give something, you expect something back - rarely work. Build networks of giving without expecting something in return.  

Rule Four: Have Fast Feedback Loops

In the fast and furious world of brutal disruptions, you need fast feedback loops - alarms and alerts that tell you how you’re doing and when to change direction. When the unexpected happens, decisions must be made quickly, whether they succeed or fail.  


Make sure you have:

  • Processes to allow fast decision making by those on the “frontlines”
  • High levels of accountability for people to make decisions without senior management approval
  • A decentralized organization with small corporate functions and a minute HQ
  • A change control system that can review and approve changes in 30 minutes
  • An exceptionally well-educated workforce that understands not just the “hows” but also the “whys.” Watch this short video for more information
  • No silos and minimal bureaucracies
  • Excellent knowledge management systems to share good and bad news within minutes
  • Performance measures that encourage collaboration, not competition
  • Key performance indicators that measure only what matters

Rule Five: Do the Basics Exceptionally Well

Great sports people are masters of the basics. Under high pressure, they are “in the zone” and can act without thinking. We have to do the same to make the right decisions quickly. Brutal disruptions are usually accompanied by high levels of stress, distraction and overload. In the pharmaceutical industry, you must have true mastery of:

  • Products and processes. You must have a deep understanding of how your products and processes work.
  • Problem solving. World-class companies use problems as learning opportunities and focus on simple solutions that will last, not quick fixes. Fast decisions don’t always end up being right. You will make mistakes. Just make sure you learn from them.
  • Risk management and risk-based decision making. With uncertainty comes risk, and you must be comfortable with uncertainty and excel at managing the consequence.
  • Change management. If you can’t review and approve a planned change in 30 minutes, your future is at risk.
  • Education. Unless people understand the “why,” they can’t practice the “how.”


Ask yourself and your colleagues these questions to assess how good you are at the basics:

  • Does everyone understand how your products work and know their key quality attributes? Do you all have in-depth knowledge of your process’ critical control points?
  • Do you have a culture of risk aversion? If so, you are exposing yourself to even greater risk. There is no such thing as zero risk.
  • When you are trying to fix problems, do you look for a single root cause? If you do, think again. It simply doesn't exist; problems always have multiple contributing factors.

Rule Six: Look After Yourself

Brutal disruptions are tough, requiring long hours and high levels of anxiety. Burnout is a real possibility. Make sure you keep body and soul together.

And finally… enjoy the ride.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Brutal disruptions will force us to be more creative than ever before. Maintaining the status quo is no longer good enough. We will discover new ways of thinking and new ways of doing things.

Are you interested in learning more about customised pharmaceutical & biotechnology education programmes or joining a free webinar? Visit our profile below.

NSF Health Sciences Pharma Biotech Consulting

About the Author

Martin Lush is the Global Vice President of NSF Health Sciences. An organisation of global experts in consultancy, auditing, education, analytical and certification services to pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device and dietary supplements companies.

With over 37 years’ experience in pharmaceutical and health care industries, he has provided education, trouble shooting, consultancy, due diligence services to clients in over 50 countries. Martin is a ‘Qualified Person’ (QP) under permanent provisions and Honorary Lecturer at the School of Pharmacy. University of Strathclyde.

Martin Lush

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Last updated: 16 Jul 2019

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