Adapting to Agile at Genentech

When the pioneer of the biotech industry – for more than 40 years – decides to embrace a new way of working, you can be sure of two things. There won’t be anything halfway about it, and the ripple effect will be considerable.

Facing increased competition from both startups and biosimilar drugs, Genentech had made the decision to adopt Agile management practices across the company. Major, positive change ensued: top-down decision-making and rigid processes gave way to a new normal of small, high-performing teams driving strategy and innovation for each therapeutic area. The core of the company was taking a leap to become nimbler and retain its pioneering status.

That was just the beginning. Now the rest of the organization needed to adapt. The leader of the Government Affairs division at Genentech, Fritz Bittenbender, knew that his group’s usual ways of working with the business were no longer efficient or fluid. Government Affairs professionals’ expertise had always been in demand, but Genentech’s new operating model meant that these employees were now being taxed in an entirely new and unsustainable way. Fritz had already steered the division through a challenging period over the prior 18 months, and with great success. Wary of change fatigue, Fritz knew he would need to navigate this next step with the utmost care.

Partnering effectively within Genentech going forward would require the division to create its own Agile-inspired ways of working, and in so doing, define its future. Seeking swift progress, fresh perspective, and genuine partnership, Fritz tasked a hybrid team comprised of highly respected individuals within Genentech and from Navigate to accomplish this important mission.

Within 60 days, the hybrid work team accomplished what many in the division had thought highly unlikely, if not impossible: a new – and very different – vision for the Government Affairs unit. One that was flexible, scalable, and adaptable. A vision accompanied by a clear go-forward plan which accounted for intake and governance, strategic prioritization, talent development, and meaningful employee recognition.

Most important, a vision and action plan that was enthusiastically accepted and even embraced not only by Government Affairs’ own employees but also by leaders across Genentech. In the words of one executive leader, “I think this work stopped people in their tracks.” In the days that followed, more than 50% of employees from across the division asked to play a role in implementation.

Genentech SVP Fritz Bittenbender describes the partnership as superlative:

“Navigate is unlike any consulting firm that I have worked with: they speak plain English and not consulting jargon. Many consulting firms are good at strategy, but I have found that implementation is by far the hardest part, and this is where Navigate excels. They worked alongside us as team members to ensure we reached our project vision. This is what every consulting partnership should be.”

Inside many large companies, transformation initiatives start, stop, falter, and frequently fail altogether. How did this hybrid team overcome the obstacles to deliver a robust vision and plan in 60 days? The secret to their success began with human-centered design, and built from there.

Starting from scratch

As hard as it was, the team agreed that new solutions to thorny problems would require a fresh perspective and letting go of conscious and unconscious biases. In short, starting from scratch. Applying key principles from design thinking and service design, the team utilized an empathy-led methodology to engage one-on-one with more than 30 Genentech leaders across the business, and with employees inside the division. This human-centered design approach – intrinsic to Navigate’s approach to all transformation endeavors – led to richer answers, a more precise definition of the problem, and clearer insights.

Leverage = speed

There was so much to accomplish in just 60 days. Genentech team members all still had their “day jobs” to manage. The Navigate team had extensive experience in life sciences but was new to Genentech, and to the world of government affairs. The hybrid team needed to be flexible in its approach to get the work done without losing shared ownership of the process and outcomes. Ultimately, they settled on an approach that allowed the Navigate team to rapidly develop its Genentech IQ and provide critical leverage for the Genentech team members to tackle the most challenging aspects of the work. The result? In the words of one team member, “Navigate literally saved us months of work, and helped us to deliver a much better outcome as a result.”

Different is good

The Genentech team had worked with consultants before. They expected a fair amount of arrogance. A bunch of consulting lingo. An off-the-shelf solution. What they experienced was something very different, leading one Genentech team member to observe: “Navigate was embedded within our division, not as consultants but as team members and friends. They got to know our culture, how we operate, as well as our strengths and weaknesses. They were part of the project, and not just advising from the sidelines: their team was in it with us sharing in our successes and feeling the pain from bumps along the way — all the while ensuring our transformation journey stayed on track.” Another noted that the Navigate team members “came up to speed on our business and made meaningful recommendations faster than we’ve ever seen any other external party do it.” The respect was mutual. Navigate’s Kip Wetzel explains: “Our intent was to create the conditions to help the group leverage its own expertise – the Genentech team members embraced that opportunity in every way to define and own the new future of Government Affairs.”

Authentic storytelling

Too often, visions and plans fail to succeed because they aren’t communicated in a clear or compelling way from the outset. This could not be allowed to happen, and it didn’t. Genentech team members were proud of their work and excited to own and share this vision. Navigate team members with deep expertise in communication and design helped the team craft and tell the story, and cheered them on from behind the scenes. The result was a Genentech team that didn’t just present their vision: they authentically lived it.

Off to the races

Strategy into action. Sounds easy, but isn’t. The team could feel the momentum building, and undertook the painstaking work of ensuring the vision translated to plans and to action. Immediately. Three workstreams launched with the presentation of the vision and plan, with three more that would launch shortly thereafter. No handover from a strategy team to an execution team; no new learning curves for anyone. The Genentech and Navigate team transitioned to execution seamlessly and didn’t miss a beat: no speed was lost. Just a few months later, Genentech Government Affairs is realizing the value of its transformation and pacing with Genentech’s new operating model, with Navigate remaining an engaged partner.

“In my 25-year career, I have worked with many consultants. Navigate has been the very best at understanding client needs and helping to deliver on a desired vision.”

– Fritz Bittenbender, SVP of Government Affairs, Genentech

Within 60 days, the hybrid work team accomplished what many in the division had thought highly unlikely, if not impossible: a new – and very different – vision for the Government Affairs unit. One that was flexible, scalable, and adaptable.