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When Virtual Is Reality
How far can the notion of a virtual team go?
Posted Sep 1, 2006
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Out of California comes an innovative trend worth watching: virtual pharmaceutical companies. Entrepreneurs are now using the technology that makes telecommuting, virtual teams, and other Web-based business models to even greater degrees, creating companies most people would envision only as bricks and mortar. These businesses have no buildings; the temporary staff works part-time from different cities a continent apart; and 90 percent of the meetings are conducted by teleconference. This radical approach, unheard of just years ago, demonstrates new capabilities for virtual companies. The virtual pharmaceutical company model has a number of strengths. First, it's less expensive to start. There's no need to invest immediately in offices, lab space, or equipment. That enables the investor to focus on securing the best intellectual capital and intellectual property to get new products off the ground and increase the number of ventures it supports. This business model, however, contains more built-in stressors than most. When one's colleagues also have obligations to other companies, delays and ensuing frustrations can be magnified. Scheduling around multiple commitments and shared loyalties requires careful, long-term planning. The tight deadlines of start-ups and emerging stage companies, however, often require being able to act now. This tension is well understood by all at Syndax Pharmaceuticals, an oncology start-up launched in late 2005. The challenge described by one of Syndax's consultant-leaders is that she is "part-time and not on-call 24/5." The reality for many start-up employees is a 24/7 lifestyle. Syndax applies the best practices of virtual teams. Strong emphasis on timely, complete communication helps delay the start of functional silos, potentially accelerated by the early use of geographically dispersed specialists. Any start-up's progress can make hiring schedules unpredictable. The CEO must build deep, strong relationships to bolster the consultants' willingness to stay fully engaged during the inevitable search for their successors and smoothly transition their roles. CEO and President Joanna Horobin, MD, joined the Syndax team earlier this year.
Dr. Horobin is a seasoned executive from traditionally structured biopharmaceutical companies in the United States and Europe. In the past her teams were colocated and all members were full-time employees. Horobin's success in getting Syndax off the ground is due to how she leads her dispersed, mostly part-time and temporary colleagues. In addition to steady email communication with the team, Horobin meets telephonically with each staff member, the committee tasked with accomplishing elements of the business plan, and the whole team at least weekly. With the goal of creating a virtual water cooler around which to communicate even more easily, the Syndax group is considering instant messaging and other formats. Horobin has invested in laying the foundation for an effective, high-performing team. Roles, responsibilities, interdependencies, and hand-offs are revisited from time to time to assure alignment and avoid gaps. Work is defined by deliverables, rather than process. Moving beyond technological connections, Horobin brings them together every few months to make important decisions, resolve issues, and strengthen the relationships that produce effective, open communication. Described by one of her staff as a leader who "nurtures without nursing," Horobin has built a strong relationship with each team member, creating a collaborative environment that enables each member to deliver. Horobin's staff noted that she "makes everyone feel part of the team," especially important in a virtual environment. The team's interactions demonstrate its articulated shared values (respect, honesty, and objectivity), as well as decisiveness and cooperation. The Syndax business model emphasizes investing in human capital, rather than bricks and mortar, making manifest the oft-repeated claim "people are our most important asset." Superior leadership, team building, and change management practices are essential to making it work in both the short run and long term. About the Author Elaine Crowley, MEd, is founder and president of The Crowley Group. Please visit www.thecrowleygroup.com
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