Guest Column | February 8, 2017

Brexit, Trump, What Next? 6 Rules To Succeed In An Era Of 'Brutal Disruption'

By Martin Lush, VP of Health Sciences, NSF International

Heard the latest? Elvis is alive and kicking and planning a comeback.  Only kidding … but who knows? After the events of 2016, anything is possible.

Many of you will be familiar with the old sayings:

“Proper planning prevents poor performance.”


“Fail to plan, plan to fail.”

The trouble is, planning only works when you have a basic idea of what’s coming. But what do you do when you don’t? How can you prepare for an era of brutal disruption? Brexit, Trump, … what next?

Good leaders have one priority. Protect the legacy and reputation of the company in their charge and make a profit. This is easier said than done in the pharma/biotech world. Costs are increasing and margins reducing. Important decisions have to be made with one eye on the balance sheet and the other firmly focused on the business environment.  But what do you do when the future can’t be predicted with any certainty? Proper planning no longer guarantees good performance. In this era of brutal disruption, you may have the plan of all plans — and still fail. As the great management guru Mike Tyson once said:

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

2016 reminded us of one thing. There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen. We live in an era of brutal disruptions. Events that:

  • Are potentially massive
  • Will have profound effects
  • Are truly life-changing
  • Can’t be predicted with certainty. You don’t see them coming. You have no plans in place. No Plan A, let alone Plan B

What happens if your supplier of a vital raw material is deluged by flood water and is closed for six months? Are you ready for the next volcanic dust cloud that will shut down airspace and wreak havoc with you supply chain? What if a trade war and punitive tariffs increase the costs of your materials by 60%?

Brutal disruptions are here to stay, so get used to them. In fact, they will probably happen annually (or more often, as 2016 demonstrated).  Here is the problem.  Predictable challenges can, in theory at least, be planned for.  The next punch in the face can’t be anticipated. So how do you prepare? How do you protect yourself and your business?  How do you turn disruption into success? Charles Darwin, the English naturalist, points us in the right direction:

“It is not the strongest of species that survives, nor the most intelligent … It is the one most adaptable to change.”

So, when the next brutal disruption breaks your nose, how to you bounce back stronger? How will you get up from the canvas faster than your competitors? How will you turn disruption into success? Follow these “six to fix” rules to bounce back stronger.

Rule #1: Make sure you have a “bounce back” culture.

When the unexpected happens, you want “all hands to the pump.” You need full engagement of the entire workforce. Everyone working as one, focussed on being part of the solution, not looking over their shoulders, fearful of the future. A bounce back culture is:

  • Totally open and transparent, with excellent communications
  • Blame-free from top to bottom
  • Free of fiefdoms, silos, and unnecessary bureaucracies
  • One where leadership is visible and walks the talk
  • A very highly motivated workforce who care about what they do beyond their pay check

Your call to action:

  • A bounce back culture is not created overnight. (To see if you have a resilient culture, complete this questionnaire and culture “health check” for diagnosis and answers.)
  • In a blame-free culture, you must select your performance measures with care. Rewarding people for reducing deviation incidents can inadvertently lead to a blame culture. Deviations attributed to human error put the focus on the person, not the system that created the error. A blame culture will often follow. (For simple guidance on how to achieve blame-free culture, watch this 5-minute YouTube video.)
  • Make sure you have a positive attitude in response to errors, because in turbulent time you’re going to make lots of them. Remember, failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.

Rule #2: Excel at brutal simplification.

To bounce back fast, you must keep things simple. Simple processes, simple systems, simple everything. Complexity confuses. Complexity slows everything down and increases the risk of errors and mistakes. Remember what Darwin said — survival is about speed and agility. Neither can be achieved without simplification.

Your call to action:

  • Survival is about simplification, so get good at it. Want to simplify your standard operating procedures (SOPs)? Get a small group of users together in a room for two hours. Process map reality, and remove anything that adds no value (usually about 80 percent). Then replace words with pictures, and you will have a simple procedure that works. (For more on “The Art and Science of Simplification,” see this YouTube video or have a read of this white paper.)
  • Complexity is a sign of lazy thinking and a ponderous organization. Good thinkers are good simplifiers. The more you simplify, the faster you will react when punched in the face.

Rule #3:  Establish an excellent network built on trust and respect.

When you’re on the receiving end of brutal disruptions, you want to be surrounded by people you trust. People with the knowledge and skills you need. When hit with the unexpected, your external network is just as important as your internal network.

Your call to action:

  • Building strong networks, internal and external, is an active process. You have to work at it.
  • Remember, transactional networks — based on the assumption that if you ‘give’ something you expect something back in return — rarely work.
  • Successful relationships and networks are built on the philosophy of giving without expecting something in return. Givers have networks of friends, colleagues, and associates who come running to your aide when you’re flat on the canvas. They want to help because they care about you … because you care about them. It’s human nature.

Rule #4: Implement fast feedback loops.

In the fast and furious world of brutal disruptions, you need fast feedback loop — alarms and alerts that tell you how you’re doing and when to change direction.  If colleagues at a biotech plant on another continent learn something new (from a success or failure), you must know about in hours. When the unexpected happens, decisions must be made quickly. Some will succeed. Others will fail. You need fast and accurate feedback loops to tell you what has worked and what hasn’t.

Your call to action:

Make sure you have:

  • Processes in place to allow fast decision making by those doing difficult or dangerous jobs
  • High levels of accountability to allow people to make decisions without approval by senior management
  • A completely decentralized organisation with very few corporate functions and a minute HQ
  • A change control system that can review and approve changes in 30 minutes
  • An exceptionally well educated (not trained) workforce. Remember, there is a difference. You educate your children and train your pets! (For more on this distinction, take a look at this 5-minute YouTube video.)
  • No silos and minimal (enabling) bureaucracies
  • Excellent knowledge management systems to share good and bad news quickly
  • Performance measures that encourage collaboration, not competition.
  • Key performance indicators that measure only what matters — the less you measure the more you know

Rule #5: Focus on doing the basics to Ph.D. level (exceptionally well!).

Great athletes are masters of the basics. Under conditions of high pressure, they act without thinking. They are in the zone. We have to do the same. Master the basics. Brutal disruptions are always accompanied by stress, distraction, and overload. To be able to make the right decisions at speed, you also need to be in the zone. In the pharmaceutical industry, you must have true mastery of:

  • Your products and processes. You must have a deep understanding of how your products and processes work.  What are the key quality attributes of your products? What are your process critical control points?
  • Problem solving. World-class companies are world-class problem solvers. They use problems as learning opportunities. They focus on simple solutions that will last, not on quick fit band-aids. Fast decisions are not always right. You will make mistakes. Just make sure you learn from them.
  • Risk management and risk based decision making. With uncertainty comes risk. You must be comfortable with uncertainty and excel at managing the consequence. Use failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) proactively, not just reactively. Remember, there is no such thing as zero risk. 
  • Change management. If you can’t review and approve a planned change in 30 minutes, your future is at risk.
  • The ability to remove the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak will be key. Less is more. Less is faster.
  • Unless people understand the why, they can’t practice the how.

Your call to action:

Ask the following questions to assess how good you are at the basics:

  • Does everyone understand how your products work and their key quality attributes? Do they also 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 to address? If you do, think again. There is no such thing as singular root cause.

Rule #6: Look after yourself!

Brutal disruptions are tough.  Long hours and high levels of anxiety are the norm. Burnout is a real possibility. Please make sure you keep body and soul together!

And Finally … Enjoy the ride!

It’s true: 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. The next Brexit or Trump is unavoidable, but by following these six rules, we will discover new ways of thinking and new ways of doing things. It’s going to be exciting!

About The Author:

Martin Lush is global VP of NSF Health Sciences (Pharma Biotech and Medical Devices), a global consultancy providing education, auditing, and remediation support for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry worldwide. With 35 years of hands-on experience in manufacturing, operations, and quality assurance, he helps clients do more with less. Respected for his simple thinking and simple solutions, Martin’s passion is helping clients prepare for a future world of brutal disruptions. He believes that just maintaining the status quo is no longer good enough. Follow him on LinkedIn for more articles to help you rethink everything!

Image credit: Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore, 2016, CC BY-SA 2.0)