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Innovative Impact Blog: Pharma industry scenario planning – outsmarting unpredictability

Using scenario planning to keep ahead in the pharma industry

Authored by Stephanie Hall, Chief Executive Officer, Uptake Strategies for the PME Impactful Innovation Blog.

In this article for Pharma Marketing Europe, Stephanie emphasizes the crucial role of scenario planning in staying ahead of the curve. Given the complexity of our ever-changing pharma industry, it’s essential to avoid “winging it.” Steph provides a clear pathway for implementing scenario planning through a collaborative and cross-functional approach.

Stephanie highlights the COVID-19 pandemic as an example mega-disruptor, which the pharma industry had to adapt to through new channels and ways of operating in an inefficient and disconnected way. The roadmap provided in this blog will support you and your teams to navigate the evolving landscape of healthcare, whilst ensuring decisions are truly patient-centric.

Read below or click to access the published version

Last month, Melissa Dagless shared her thoughts on this blog about planning in uncertain times, and she has invited me to further this thinking with a deeper dive into one of the core tools for outsmarting unpredictability.

For the last decade or so, as we’ve faced such a whirlwind of different and erratic challenges, scenario planning has risen up the ranks – cited in a plethora of articles which note its particular usefulness in situations where even the smallest changes can have significant consequences.

Can’t we just ‘wing it’?

In short, no, you can’t! As our industry and the world around us never cease to plateau into stability, scenario planning is now considered an essential tool for those looking to navigate uncertainty with confidence. There are too many possible disruptors to take any risks – from mobilised patients seeking information and demanding treatments, to the complex needs of our growing elderly population, to the influence of the media on new trends – our world is now far, far too complex to ‘wing it’.

To be well prepared, you must consider the plausible, yet diverse scenarios that represent possible futures – and develop a set of assumptions and outcomes for each one. By anticipating potential futures and planning accordingly, companies can more easily tackle unexpected events, identify and minimise potential risks, and more expertly seize the opportunities that arise.

Let’s consider an obvious mega-disruptor: the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns and social distancing measures resulted in a complete cessation of field-based activities, especially in hospitals and with anyone involved in respiratory or ER care. To adapt to this new reality, companies had to find new channels and ways of operating, such as virtual meetings and remote detailing. The scramble was inefficient, disconnected, and stressful, and it has led to our current ‘post COVID’ reality, which presents more new challenges across many areas, from backlogs to pricing. This experience has highlighted the importance of scenario planning and the need to be prepared for unexpected disruptions.

Another example is the increasing demand for mental health services, particularly among adolescents and adults. With the growing mental health crisis, companies in the pharma and biotech industry need to consider scenarios that address the changing needs of patients and the healthcare system. Scenario planning can help identify potential risks and opportunities in this area and ensure that companies are well-positioned to respond. Winging it is not an option here, if we are to truly keep the patients at the centre of our decisions.

How do we even begin to implement this?

There is a clear pathway to implementing scenario planning in our industry, and it requires a collaborative and cross-functional approach:

  1. Define Your Assumptions: The first step is to define your assumptions, both internal and external, that will shape the future of your business. This includes assumptions about regulatory changes, emerging technologies, competitors and shifts in customer behaviour.
  1. Involve All Perspectives: Work cross-functionally to involve all perspectives, including patient safety, regulatory, digital, medical, field-based teams, and marketing. By getting input from all areas of the business, you can develop a more comprehensive set of scenarios.
  1. Align on Level of Volatility/Uncertainty: It is important to align as a team on the level of volatility and uncertainty inherent in your business or brand, and to communicate this to senior management. For example, a long-term chronic use of insulins for diabetes may have lower volatility compared to seasonal spikes in smoking cessation treatments.
  1. Identify Risks or Potential Disruptors: Identify potential disruptors to your therapy area from macro to micro, strategic to tactical, internal, and external, positive, and negative.
  1. Foster a Positive Mindset: Create a positive, proactive mindset towards scenario planning, risk management, and mitigation so that the team feels ready to tackle the uncertainties of the future rather than fearful of doom.
  1. Set Regular Check-Ins: Set regular check-ins to review your scenarios and update them to keep them alive. This helps you stay agile and adapt quickly as the market shifts.
  1. Define Lead Indicators: Define leading indicators of change or disruption for each scenario so that you know when to reconvene and update your strategy.
  1. Foster Different Thinking: Involve someone from another team or business unit to foster different thinking and generate new ideas.


Ultimately, scenario planning is not about predicting the future, but rather creating a range of plausible futures and being prepared for whatever comes our way. By embracing scenario planning as a critical component of your strategic toolkit, it is possible stay ahead of the curve and navigate the evolving landscape of healthcare.

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