Multidisciplinary collaboration in drug discovery – how to make it work

1. Balance formal and informal coordination
2. Anticipate cross-disciplinary requirements
3. Pay attention to synchronisation of workflows
4. Triangulate assumptions and findings across disciplines
5. Get the opinion from team outsiders 

Drug development is a long and expensive process. On average it takes more than ten years to get a drug to market and precious few molecules coming out of the drug discovery phase1 make it to clinical trials. The performance of the discovery team and the choices they make, however, have a knock-on effect on the rest of the drug development process. All the more reason to optimise its effectiveness. Drug discovery teams typically combine specialists from a variety of disciplines. Together with colleagues from academia and the industry, professor Zeynep Erden identified the conditions for effective cross-disciplinary collaboration and knowledge creation in drug discovery teams.

When uncertainty rules

Coordinating collaboration in multidisciplinary teams is always a challenge. What makes it particularly challenging for drug discovery teams is the extreme uncertainty they face, as Zeynep explains: “Technology development projects aren’t cast in stone either, but their degree of uncertainty is comparatively limited. Scientists in drug discovery projects sometimes don’t know what they don’t know. Drug discovery is a highly dynamic, unpredictable process, requiring effective coordination based on emerging insights and findings.” And she goes on: “Moreover, the scientists involved are usually highly specialised in their field, yet because of the impact of the discovery phase, they’re expected to be able to take into account knowledge and information from all the other areas involved. That’s a tall order – easier to achieve if there are more generalist profiles in the team.”

So, how do successful drug discovery teams coordinate their complex knowledge creation activities, and which organisational structures foster and facilitate progress? To answer this question, Zeynep and her colleagues interviewed members of five drug discovery projects in a global pharmaceutical company. The project teams and sub-teams were also observed during meetings, lab work and informal discussions for a period of more than 18 months in 2011 and 2012. Afterwards the interview transcripts and field notes were analysed by axial coding using specialised software. Finally, the findings of this study were summarised in five insights and recommendations.

Strike the right balance

The standout finding was that effective team coordination hinges on the right balance between formal and informal coordination practices. “This may sound obvious”, she says, “but the literature is still divided as to which of the two is more important. We’ve found they are complementary. Managers should find the right balance and enable both, which is easier said than done as this balance is different from team to team and from project to project.” What about self-organising teams that are all the rage now? “They are important to keep progress in such a dynamic environment. But you have to bear in mind that for drug discovery projects you must set out some formal practices at the start in order to enable any informal coordination later on.”

Anticipate the needs and timing of others

Drug discovery doesn’t stand on its own. So, it’s absolutely vital that team members understand all the interdependencies and the implications their choices have for patients and for the work of others, be it in the discovery stage or further down the development process. “It’s no use designing a drug molecule that will prove difficult to synthesise in production”, says Zeynep. “This also means learning to compromise rather than holding on to discipline-specific standards of excellence. Scientists tend to be perfectionists – they want to get to the bottom of things, which is commendable. But when working in drug discovery, it’s important to focus on those questions and issues that serve the common goal.”

Zeynep stresses that interdependencies are not limited to functional requirements or needs. “Synchronisation of workflows is as important. If the drug molecule, e.g. a drug candidate to treat tumours, is not ready for testing once the tumorous mice are available, these mice may not survive. Growing tumours in new mice may take weeks, which not only costs money, but also delays the project.”

Never assume

The stakes are high in drug discovery. So, you can never be too certain. All along the project scientists should scrutinise their own findings and assumptions, liaising with the other disciplines involved to ensure that their output constitutes useful input for others. Good practices include aligning experimental conditions and parameters, triangulating research findings and being sensitive to misunderstandings that may arise from domain-specific terminology and criteria. “I remember how chemists and structural biologists used the same colour coding to mean different things, which led to endless confusion and waste of time”, Zeynep recalls.

Invite the devil’s advocate

And finally, Zeynep and her colleagues found that it is not only important to optimise the coordination within the discovery teams and sub-teams, but that it is also extremely useful to regularly involve outsiders who will challenge the teams’ assumptions, and by bringing a new perspective may get a project back on track and drive its progress.

Food for thought

Aside from these five insights and recommendations, Zeynep points out two observations that were not included in the paper, but that are worth mentioning. “Early-stage drug discovery is extremely uncertain, and this has consequences: a team starts working on a specific issue, but a new issue may crop up. Ideally, you’d change the team to ensure all the right profiles are involved, but in practice the allocation of team members is not at all that flexible. It’s worth thinking about how we can make this assignment process more agile.” She pauses, then adds: “Also, some scientists we interviewed felt they had to combine too many projects. As a result, they couldn’t fully commit to any one of them. If you want your teams to be agile as well as committed, you as a manager should pay attention to workload management.”

It is clear that the uncertain nature of drug discovery projects calls for an agile approach. Zeynep and her colleagues conclude their paper with two questions which should provide food for thought and further research: (1) How can drug discovery teams become more agile? Which approaches could be used to improve coordination of drug discovery work? And (2) How can digital technologies foster agility in knowledge coordination activities? “So far ‘agile’ has been mostly associated with software development”, Zeynep says. “Building a working prototype is altogether different from drug discovery, so, agile practices would have to be tweaked. Back in 2011 we launched a pilot project to experiment with agile methods, but the timing wasn’t right. Today pharma is keen to make drug discovery more agile and they’re willing to look into agile approaches and supporting digital technologies.”

1 The drug discovery stage, the earliest phase of drug development, can be broken down into initial target identification and validation,  assay development and screening, lead identification and optimisation, and finally, the selection of a candidate drug molecule for clinical development.

Source: The paper “Fostering multidisciplinary collaboration in drug discovery” is published in Drug Discovery World, Spring 2019. You can also request a copy from the authors.

About the authors
Zeynep Erden is Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation Management at Vlerick Business School. Shiko Ben-Menahem is senior researcher and lecturer at the Chair of Strategic Management and Innovation at ETH Zürich. Georg von Krogh is Professor of Strategic Management and Innovation at the Department of Management, Technology, and Economics at ETH Zurich. Andreas Schneider is Innovation & Business Development Manager at Ypsomed. Guido Koch is COO at Topadur Pharma AG. Hans Widmer is Program Director at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research.

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