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Jul 16
Finding Stability in the Storm

At UCB, patients are at the heart of everything we do. Read more from Brad Chapman, U.S. Head of Internal Operations and West Ecosystem - Neurology, on how our agile ways of working are helping us keep our commitment to patients, physicians, and the communities we serve in a work-from-home world.

'We are fortunate to be in an industry where it has been possible for many of our non-research, non-manufacturing employees to work from home during the COVID-19 crisis.

Still, working-from-home has not been without its challenges as organizations struggle to figure out how to initiate projects, foster collaboration, allocate resources, and ensure people continue to have a unified sense of purpose and belonging as they log in from kitchen counters and spare bedrooms across the country.

I’ve been reflecting on how we are accomplishing this with a high level of predictability and consistency across all of our functions, thanks to an agile operational model designed to deal with the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of our pre-COVID business environment. So even with the VUCA dials set to eleven and many of our office-based and field teams working from home, our routines and responsibilities have stayed essentially intact in what is arguably one of the most highly regulated industries in the world.

For instance, earlier this morning our entire cross-functional team, across five different missions, held 15-minute “daily stand-up’s,” just as we do every day. We quickly touched base on the progress of multiple team projects currently in flight, addressed a few operational issues, and provided each other with feedback. When we wrapped, each team member left the meeting with clear objectives, empowered to advance their area of responsibility going forward.

This approach has also allowed us to creatively respond to the unique demands for patients and providers that have come up over the past few weeks with the COVID-19 crisis. As new initiatives arise, we adjust our priorities accordingly. Responsibilities, resources, and deadlines shift to reflect the new dynamic, yet we know where things stand and what we’re supposed to be doing. As a result, things don’t fall through the cracks.

These days, of course, everyone is logging in over our video conferencing system, but today wasn’t much different from any other day this year where we have a mix of people in the room and on-line. We all know to show up at the same time each day, prepared to participate, and the predictable cadence of our approach means that each of us is clear about our role in the system and how to work together to advance our objectives.

This is especially reassuring to me given that when we first started laying out this approach, we received pushback from people who believed the agile organizational scheme seemed too loosely defined and unstructured to work in our complex and highly regulated business. There was real concern that it would never stand up to the rigors of real life without the hierarchy and chain of command to which we’ve all grown accustomed.

Instead, we’ve come to appreciate the high level of discipline and accountability underlying the “loose agile structure” that makes it possible to maintain the adaptability and pacing that we’ve seen these past few weeks. This agile difference becomes even more apparent when we compare what we experience in our group every day to the concerns I hear from friends and colleagues in traditional organizations.

Especially during this time on any team, a member can evaluate what they are doing on a program by tracking back to the “user story” that defines a) who we’re doing this for; b) the need or opportunity we’re looking to address; and c) what success looks like from the perspective of the stakeholder.

Each initiative is broken into discreet tasks that need to be completed in 2-4 week “sprints,” and our (now virtual) task board shows each day where we stand versus the commitments we’ve made, so we can continually course correct and shift resources to make sure priorities stay on-track.

This transparency creates an environment in which the motivation and direction come from within as team members accept accountability for their own commitments, and help colleagues identify and address potential impediments or distractions.

Finally, for me as a leader the greatest benefit of working within a system that pivots so smoothly to stay on track in times like these is that it allows me to focus less on the nuts-and-bolts of how we get things done, and focus more on the human element of who is doing the work. The time I would normally spend fighting operational brush fires can now be spent taking care of our people as they deal with the personal challenges and disruptions that this crisis has wrought.

Of course, no system is perfect, and we have our good days and bad days, but the dynamism and flexibility of this system allow us to respond to new challenges as they present themselves, whether we’re talking about COVID-19 or a change at a local health system. The more disruption in the world around us, the more this agile approach (that can look chaotic to an outsider), has become a welcome source of stability and predictability for our team.'

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