It comes up again and again in our pharma-consulting experience: the big divide between sponsors and the clinical research organizations (CROs) they hire and the friction that can cause. It’s not good for the working relationship, and it’s not good for the outcome of these sensitive and crucial clinical trials. We’ve discussed why it’s so important to start these relationships off on the right foot by finding the right matches and why the relationship doesn’t just begin and end with the contract. But how do you smooth out all the bumps and struggles that pop up?

Seeing the Other Side

We agree with Paul Watzlawick, who said, “The belief that one’s own view of reality is the only reality is the most dangerous of all.” Understanding what the other side thinks and feels is the key to finding common ground, and thus steering around the biggest hurdles on the clinical-trial road. In other words, both sides need to work on their empathy.

We’ve found this is actually harder than it looks. It’s tough to step away from your own point of view to truly try to perceive a situation from someone else’s perspective. Even if you ask how the other side feels, they will have a hard time articulating it – you probably do too. (You’ve perhaps already learned this through your personal relationships… Same thing here.)

However, it’s critical that we find a way to get past our own biased assumptions and really try to understand, and even anticipate, what the other side is thinking. This can be particularly challenging in clinical trials, as CROs and sponsors don’t feel like they even have time for real conversations. Everything happens so fast! And some deadline always looms.

The touchpoints that do exist tend to be a bit antagonistic: bidding, defending, negotiating and (gulp) confronting problems. These are all high-stress, high-impact situations that naturally pit each side’s own interests against the other’s – not exactly the bedrock of cooperation and open sharing. No wonder sponsors and CROs often don’t get the chance to get to know each other. And without that, how can each understand the pressures and motivations driving the other side? How can you empathize when all you talk is numbers, pressure and delivery?

So, what happens when empathy fails?

Trouble happens. As most of us tend to make our own assumptions with very little truth to base them on, this trouble is almost inevitable. One such example was discussed at the recent COS 2015, in which some CRO employees shared how they had incorrectly assumed that the pharma-sponsor employees they were working with had much more money and job security than they did. Once the two groups of employees opened up to each other, the CRO team learned that the pharma employees actually weren’t any “better off” than they were—they had actually been experiencing job insecurity for at least the past 10 years.

Are You Guilty, Too?

The expression goes that “When you assume…” – well, we’ll let you look that one up. But basically, neither side comes out looking pretty. So, are you guilty of doing this? Are you getting in your own way in your inter-company working relationships?

What beliefs do you hold about the other party?  Do you really understand their business? Ask yourself:

  1. What drives their business?
  2. Why have their employees chosen their particular jobs, rather than working on your side of the fence?
  3. What do they hope to achieve by working with you?

When you don’t know the answer to any of these questions, ask. Even if you do think you know, ask anyway. Create opportunities to mingle, formally or informally – just away from the negotiation table. This is the best way to cross over from assuming to empathizing; you learn more from listening than from making your own assumptions. When you share, your partners can also better understand the pressures and motivations that drive you and your team. There are probably some surprises in store for both sides.

This blog is based on part of Kieran Canisius’ presentation “Driving Performance & Results: Who is actually behind the steering wheel?” at the Clinical Outsourcing Strategies (COS) conference in October 2015.

Our vendor management processes supports pharma and biotech teams to maximize their CRO partners. Call us at: + 31 (0) 20-2900016 for a friendly chat about outsourcing solutions or email us your questions

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