How To Lead A Strategy Realization Office In Life Sciences

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In today’s episode, guest-host Susanne Kerins discussed the topic of “Leading a Strategy Realization Office in Life Sciences” with Sachin Raje.

Sachin is Director, Strategy Realization Office, MRL Global Medical and Scientific Affairs at Merck. He is an expert in mentoring on Project Management, complex program management, setting up PMOs, establishing and managing Strategy Realization Offices.

He has deep sector-wide experience, with a solid record of delivering value to a number of companies in the Life Sciences, Financial Services, Insurance, Retail and Manufacturing industries.

Stream or download “How to Lead a Strategy Realization Office in Life Sciences” below.


Highlights from Episode 143: “How to Lead a Strategy Realization Office in Life Sciences” with Sachin Raje

In today’s episode, we are joined by Sachin Raje who will be here with us to discuss how to lead a strategy realization office in life sciences. He is a very relevant man to talk to us as he is the director of the strategy realization with Merck.

Thank you so much for joining us today. Can you give us a bit of insight into your background? How did you get into project management and strategy realization?

Yeah, the journey was very interesting. I started my career way back in electronics engineering, which is what my background was, and then started off with being a leader at my own company in computer-aided design, which was a completely different field in India. I wrote a couple of books in that field as that was the field I was in, and I never thought I would end up in the US. And there I realized that I needed to sort of have a different set of skills altogether and realized project management was this sort of link between the computer-aided design world, and then this one over here.

So, I started in project management, very early in the 1990s. In the late 1990s I got a chance to set up what I called the project management office without knowing that such a term existed. And then, from there on, as I did more work, I got a chance to set up a few project management offices.

And then the term program management came into vogue. I was lucky to head up a company, a small company, which set up PMOs for companies. So, there I got a chance to work with existing PMOs in mid-sized companies at the time and got a chance to see what the problem areas really were in program management and project management, then in the PMO structure and got to learn about the various flavors of program management and then the strategy realization office was a natural evolution.

When I came to my current job, which is in Merck, MRL Global Medical and Scientific Affairs (GMSA). That’s where we were going through a massive transformation and we needed to have something, which would sort of manage the transformations. So, the strategy realization office concept, I started in 2017 and Gartner kind of defined the term in 2019.

The names and the terms are sort of loose if you will, like the strategy realization office in the utopian world is somebody sitting right in the CEO’s office. I guess where you’re taking strategy from there, but we took it as something, which meant in our department, which is a 20,000 people group at that level, and then the strategy realization of this for that group. That was the kind of journey leading up into the strategy realization office, knowing that this was a different view than the traditional PMOs. It had to do something differently. So that’s why we refuse to be called PMOs because we were doing some things differently and wanted to do something differently.

Is there much of a difference within the PMO within the different industries or are there similarities across the board? Or can you tell us a little bit more about that?

So, PMOs come in multiple flavors as you well know. So, you could have a functional PMO which is a line of the function that you’re providing. It could be an enterprise PMO, which is truly at the top-level kind of managing and setting directions or it could even be, for that matter, for a large project or large programs. For example, the divestiture of a company could have its own PMO. So, there are different flavors of PMOs itself and then depending on the kind of touch point that the PMO provides across the projects themselves.

PMI has terms for this. They classify three different types of PMOs. A low-touch PMO with some sort of templates and guidance, to a midterm PMO which sets stage gates and those kinds of things, and a little more process-driven and to a final high-touch PMO which is more, you know, “We will manage all your projects”. So, from that perspective, across industries, you are going to see these various flavors of PMs and PMOs, that’s a given.

In life sciences what was significantly different, in my opinion, at least in the companies that I have had the occasion to work with, is the PMOs tend to be more supportive of three different types of projects. One of them is around the line of what I call operational projects, which is a contradiction of terms, I guess because pressures and projects are two different things but more like product development teams.

For example, in some cases where you have a little clearer coordination driven kind of set of projects which is one kind of PMOs which is there in life sciences, which is a little different, from what I’ve seen in some of the other industries and the other are the one where you have these PhDs leading the project. So, they are subject matter experts, and you need that subject matter expertise, and you need that access into that club, if you will, of other PhDs and MDs in the pharmaceutical industries to say “Oh, this is one of us who is managing a project.”

And that kind of a concept is true in other industries as well, that you have technical project managers, SMEs in some cases, leading, becoming project managers. That kind of concept is similar, but in life sciences, it is a little more pronounced. And then, of course, there is the rare kind of projects which are unique programs, unique projects, transformational projects, one-of-a-kind bespoke projects, which of course, other industries also have a lot of.

In the pharmaceutical world, what is different is the focus doesn’t seem to be quite as much on money and in terms of budgets and time, that’s a little more kind of not, but the time management or the coordination function, is key to making things happen, keeping it going, all these people who are highly educated, doctors, MDs, and PhDs. They need to be able to focus on their work. And then the rest of the work is picked up by the better project management function. So, that’s a little different from financial services or insurance, where the project manager has a truly larger role to play in that sense.

Do you see the PMO evolving into the SRO? Or do you think they will stay separated going forward?

I think that’s a great question. I personally believe that there is space for the PMO and there’s a space for the SRO. So, it’s not as if when I grow up, I’m going to become an SRO kind of a thing. So, it’s not as if the next stage of evolution of PMOs is automatically an SRO and then if you have it, that’s utopia. It isn’t quite that way. I think there is a space for the PMOs as well. The different levels of interaction are still going to be needed. But where the SRO differentiates itself, in my mind, is the seat at the table at strategy.

If you think about it, from a strategy perspective, you had the management consulting team come and develop a strategy for you and then there was the execution which was the next level down, and the strategic execution is a space where some companies try to fill up that void and that’s where you evolve from a PMO to more strategic execution, but this strategy realization of this actually is a step above that in my opinion. Where you’re sitting and actually deciding whether a project is worth doing or not. So, tied up to the goals and the benefits and the strategy of the organization.

If you look at the various initiatives, the various goals that you’re hoping to meet and what projects should support those goals, to further those goals, is a seat at the table that the project management office never seems to have had before. If you have to have one differentiation between the PMO and SRO, it would be that.

Do you want to define what the project should be? Is it even worth it? Should they be done? And that seat at the table is what differentiates as the starting point. Then there are, of course, other things in terms of things like benefits realization, which PMOs have talked about for many years. Well, at least 15 years that I know of, but don’t quite implement in the same spirit. So, it’s the benefits realization that is truly a thing which strategy realization offices tend to focus on more because they aligned themselves to the goals at the organizational level itself and you’re looking at how you can further objectives and goals and stuff like that.

I think there’s a bit of an overlay, obviously, because SROs could have some PMOs built into them. They could manage projects of their own to keep them going to be at least the strategic unique kind of projects but for the rest of the stuff, you still need the PMO to manage the consistency, the templates, and the touch, which we need to have the moral maturity, which is needed from a project management standpoint. So, there are two separate things. There is an overlap. But they are separate.

Would you agree that the evolution or the birth of the SRO is a clear indicator that C levels are now much more invested in project management and program management and they see how it’s imperative to meet the strategy, that the PMOs are involved?

Absolutely. I think the realization is more and more firm that you just could not have a project, which you decided at the top and say “Hey, go forth and make this project happen.” Somebody must make that connection saying “Wait a minute. Is this really required?”

This is something which could be just a continuous improvement. It could be an operational change. I think it doesn’t need a project. It doesn’t need a program to support it. Somebody who understands this sort of skill set must have that seat at the table and I think you’re absolutely right. That’s where the SRO sort of shines.

So, what does the PMO look like in the future in 10 years’ time? So, it’s not quite the SRO, but do you think it will be different from what it is now?

Yes, there are a few things which I believe are going to have to change. So, one is obviously because of the pandemic and the pandemic was just, I mean, I know everybody talks about the pandemic because the obvious sort of trigger point, but it has made a massive impact, hasn’t it? It’s like it has changed the way we work, the way we think, it has questioned our being in person all the time.

So, if you think of the basic things, which the pandemic changed for the PMO, well, firstly teams are more diverse. They have to be. Because of the fact that they’re virtual, more teams started operating virtually and they know that these things can work. So, you can have virtual teams, not that there weren’t virtual teams earlier, there were, you did have globally dispersed teams across PMOs, but now it’s almost like an imperative. It’s almost like everything has to have this virtual component.

So, by that definition, you automatically get diverse teams. And that means diverse views, and I mean, the diversity sense of the word, the diversity inclusion equity sense. So, you are automatically getting teams which are not quite in your location. Not quite speak with the same accent as you, a little more diverse. So, that is bound to happen. That’s one of the changes which I think is driven by the pandemic or even more.

The second thing is, you used to have the opportunity to say, you know “This is an important meeting. Let’s meet face-to-face in the office.” It was like a thing. So, like if you ever had a need to facilitate something, you would say “Let’s meet up.” and generally that would happen. Even if you have diverse teams, you know, you could maybe do that a little. Now, for your normal meetings, you would need a little bit of a facilitation element, you need to have virtual tools and then you need to get it cut, you know, well versed with virtual tools a little more, to be able to facilitate.

That skill set is different. Different from what you do when you’re standing up. I have been facilitating for so many years now. And I’m used to the sticky notes and then the drawing on the whiteboard. And now that the whole thing is changed to not having the same sticky notes on a virtual machine, but even the techniques have changed because you can’t see people’s eyes and stuff like that. So, there is that change which is automatically going to be changing the skill sets needed for a PMO, all the project managers, right?

So, diversity is one, and the tools which you have are different. And I strongly believe that from that, the notion of stakeholder engagement is going to become more pronounced because who we are trying to do the projects for is now going to be a little more important than what it used to be earlier. So, not that it wasn’t important, it just wasn’t realized well enough as it is now. So, stakeholder engagement facilitation. They had by definition change management, which comes about because you know languages and diversity throws in changes because of culture and other things which we had not originally thought about.

Now we have to think about, oh, the same set of words mean different things to different cultures. And you know, even that is a change that you need to sort of start getting mastery over in terms of understanding as a project manager, to get things to happen. So, I think certainly, these are two or three of the skills, which are obvious to be, which have changed the face of program management, in terms of additional skills, which are needed, which they did not have to have, but nothing now we will need to have.

Show Notes

Connect with Sachin on LinkedIn here


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