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Cultural Intelligence a Cornerstone of Pharma Innovation

By Sandra Sánchez-Oldenhage - PharmAdvice


Sandra Sánchez-Oldenhage By Sandra Sánchez-Oldenhage | President & CEO - Thu, 09/02/2021 - 13:00

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Great products, services and solutions are born at the intersection of diverse ideas, experiences, and challenges within work teams that display their capability to relate and work effectively across these differences. This cultural agility, a.k.a. cultural intelligence (CQ), is paramount to innovation and success in the new era.

In an increasingly changing, technology-enabled, and disruptive world, close-knit and productive teams will provide the best innovative answers to challenges of the future. Team members that pose 2-dimensional-diversity traits (inherent and acquired1), such as different experiences, background, beliefs, and cultures, will bring a wide range of perspectives and approaches to a problem, thus enabling identification of truly optimal groundbreaking solutions.

Diversity, evolved into cultural intelligence, really unlocks the potential of a certain group of people, not when they agree but rather when disagreement and difference of opinion lead to better answers. It is through the exchange of opinion, even though occasionally it might lead to rifts, that we can coalesce experiences and cumulative knowledge for better ideas and a better way to approach challenges.

Most managers accept that employers benefit from a diverse workforce – while on message about the value of diversity, a step forward in itself – the notion can be hard to prove or quantify, especially when it comes to measuring how diversity affects a company’s ability to innovate. New research provides compelling evidence that diversity unlocks innovation and drives market growth; a finding that should intensify efforts to ensure that executive ranks both embody and embrace the power of differences.

There is a growing body of research that reveals that innovation requires the participation and deliberation of a group of voices.  And, in fact, organizations with higher levels of diversity are far more likely to out-innovate and out-perform others.

Numerous studies classify diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies as essential for growth-stage companies and global organizations alike, hence greater company performance. When combined with the application of cultural understanding to external relationships, D&I programs can provide significant competitive advantages through valuation of employees, suppliers, and customers. Such CQ drives greater innovation and enhanced decision-making.

The business case: A strong correlation between CQ and performance has been demonstrated whereby organizations with inclusive, culturally intelligent environments were six times more likely to be innovative and agile, eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes and twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets. These findings constitute a powerful new dimension of the business case for diversity.

Unfortunately, despite this data, many pharma and biotech companies have yet to recognize that their future success will in part hinge on their ability to build a diverse, inclusive, and culturally intelligent workplace. It goes beyond just checking a box for quotas or simply implementing D&I programs that are not tied to a mission and a business innovation strategy.

Although most executives believe the long-term success of their business depends on the flow, testing, and development of new ideas, one of the problems is the old belief in the “creative genius;” that creativity and innovation belongs to a talented few and not to everyone. Because of this bias, sometimes leaders will source one or two essential individuals that they believe are innovative, offer them a leadership role and start looking exclusively to them for strategic ideas and direction. However, that doesn’t create innovation.

The industry needs to recognize the crucial importance of establishing a workforce reflective of its customers and the ultimate end users of their products – a diverse population of patients. Patients that come from every culture, race, nation, and socio-economic level worldwide and represent every type of religion, sexual orientation, and political group.

The Biopharma sector directly affects the lives of billions of people around the world every day. To understand and meet the critical unmet medical needs of different patient populations, serve its purpose and mission, the industry must represent the people it serves. Having a diverse and inclusive workforce enables pharma companies to better understand their needs, which is more important than ever as the industry increasingly focuses on personalized medicines and relies on innovation and differentiation. Cultural intelligence enables disruptive innovation, consequently, it is a key success factor. 

The basic formula for diversity is rapidly evolving. It is no longer simply a matter of creating a heterogeneous workforce but using that workforce to create the innovative products, services, and business practices that can set a company apart and give it a competitive advantage in the marketplace. And as companies compete on a global scale, diversity and inclusion frequently must shift, as different markets and different cultures have varied definitions of what diversity means.

Multiple voices lead to new ideas, new services, and new products, and encourage out-of-the box thinking.  Leaders who give diverse voices equal airtime are nearly twice as likely as others to unleash value-driving insights, and employees in a “speak up” culture are 3.5 times as likely to contribute their full innovative potential. Commitment to diversity and inclusion from the top brings out the best of people, especially their most innovative ideas, recognizing the value of harnessing their unique insights and experience, is vital.

But we all know that working for and nurturing a CQ organization means a lot more than adopting the value set and putting it on the website. This is because these programs often fail to leverage the hidden power of diversity, equity, and inclusion to enhance innovative thinking. It is important to establish a clear link between D&I activities and innovation goals, and consequently establishing top-down commitment for incorporating them into the overall business strategy.

Companies can introduce true cultural intelligence to their innovative thinking and unlock their potential by:

  1. Educating everybody on the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as the toll of unconscious bias.
  2. Selecting problems that empower people to participate and spot the greatest opportunities to create positive change.
  3. Creating a place where those ideas can thrive on equal footing instead of always listening to the highest paid person’s opinion, ideas from the usual suspects, or those who are confident enough to speak up and contribute:
    • make it safe to propose novel ideas, test them and learn, regardless of failing – create a learning versus failure environment
    • ensure everyone is heard
    • give team members decision-making authority
  4. Sharing credit for success.
  5. Providing actionable feedback and implementing feedback from the team.
  6. Making diversity and inclusion (as well as innovation) a part of every leader’s job.

Moreover, looking forward, companies must also grapple with an aging workforce, a declining pipeline of qualified talent, and the challenges of managing a multigenerational workforce. But if organizations can keep their focus on making sure diversity and inclusion plus CQ efforts are at the top of their priority list, it will position them to weather these challenges and come out ahead of the competition. Cultural intelligence is a business issue and managing it effectively is a strategic imperative for growth and survival. Talent is diverse, and so should the strategies be to keep it.

We are at a time when business needs innovation, a disruptive advantage, global understanding and less “group-think.” We need to address our talent pipeline and ask ourselves whether we are attracting talent that builds the new global businesses of the future. Cultural intelligence could be a win/win for our industry, our talent pipeline, and our people; creating teams who accurately represent our customers and our patients, who offer new thinking and who don’t bring “one-size-fits-all” cultural attitudes and opinions could be a critical part of the solution as we look to innovate and succeed. The business case for diversity and inclusion is intrinsically linked to a company’s innovation strategy.



1 Two-Dimensional -Diversity / 2-D Diversity – Inherent and Acquired - Inherent diversity involves traits you are born with, such as gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Acquired diversity involves traits you gain from experience: Working in another country can help you appreciate cultural differences, for example, while selling to female consumers can give you gender smarts. It refers to companies whose leaders exhibit at least three inherent and three acquired diversity traits as having two-dimensional diversity

Photo by:   Sandra Sanchez

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