Innovating Under Constraints: Lessons for Pharma Marketers

When Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy resolved to provide low-cost eye care to all Indians irrespective of their ability to pay, he opened an 11-bed clinic in the small town of Madurai in southern India. Failing to secure the requisite funds from banks, he along with his siblings mortgaged their houses, pawned their jewelry, and used up their savings. These constraints gave birth to the much-lauded Aravind Eye Care System. An innovative care model based on the ‘’assembly line’’ approach taken from McDonald’s, Aravind Eye Care is the largest eye care services provider in the world and a subject of case studies today.

This brings to mind an HBR article by Uri Neren, CEO of Innovators International, where he highlights the role of constraints in breakthrough innovations. Uri notes that scarcity unleashes creativity & problem-solving in ways abundance can’t and the resultant solutions deliver far better outcomes.

Such is the prowess of scarcity that business organizations are known to deliberately withhold resources in order to arrive at breakthrough products and services.


Indian pharma marketers are battling multiple constraints today – doctors are restricting access to field force, competition in generics space is stifling, and budgets are running dry. Impending regulations such as generics-only policy and the UCPMP Act are set to make matters worse. Can pharma marketers innovate their way out of this perilous condition?

How Constraints Fuel Innovation?

Constraints compel us to think differently – Sohrab Vossoughi, Founder of Ziba, a design and innovation consultancy, notes that recessions are best teachers of innovation. In tough times, organizations cease to follow a particular path simply because it worked for others or because it worked all this while. Japanese carmaker Toyota’s famed ‘lean production’ was radically different from mass manufacturing systems prevalent at the time. But it helped the organization pull itself through the severe resource crunch that followed the World War.

After the US imposed sanctions on Cuba, the island country went through extreme resource crunch. This condition spurred the rise one of the most successful healthcare systems in the world. Today, Cuban healthcare is a model of excellence and efficiency, with outcomes comparable to its US counterpart, in less than one-tenth of the cost. Some of the distinct features of Cuba’s healthcare system are – it focuses on preventive rather than the more expensive curative medicine, Cuban medical schools are government-run and free, Consultorios (family medical offices) and polyclinics play a key role in medical initiatives for communities.

Constraints prompt fast action – Adversities compel leaders to stop second-guessing themselves and put ideas into practice almost instantaneously. When restrictions are underway, teams do not have the liberty to carry out countless tests & checks which often only throw up additional data that does little but delay decision-making. In a way, constraints shield leaders from paralysis of choice that comes in the way of projects taking off.

Constraints force focus – In a restricted environment, teams can’t pursue all possible paths leading towards the end goal. They have to choose only the most viable option, leaving the rest out. This sieving rarely gets done in times of abundance. Resource scarcity has made Indian space scientists, the masters of ‘simplification’. ISRO Chairman, K. Sivan, notes that constraints led them to miniaturize big, complex systems and simplify processes, prioritize stringent quality checks, reduce wastage and closely monitor the developments at every stage of the space projects. India’s Mars Orbiter, Mangalyaan, has a payload weighing only 15kg and is not as scientifically complex as NASA’s Maven, but it is smartly finding answers to some of the biggest questions about the Red Planet.

Takeaways for Pharma Marketers

With most doctors spending only about 2-5 minutes meeting medical reps, marketers will have to think of more creative ways to deliver complete scientific information about their products and also retain the personal touch. As marketing budgets get slashed, armies of field force will have to make way for newer channels of communication, ones that will fetch better returns.

As regulatory authorities resolve to put an end to dubious prescription generation practices, pharma marketers will have to debunk the ‘’transactional’’ mindset and develop a whole new relationship with medical practitioners and KOLs that prioritizes ”value addition”.

With unbranded generics in state-run pharmacies set to disrupt around 20% of branded drug sales, established branded generic players will have to take some hard decisions about their product lines. Uncharted territories like complex generics, biosimilars and specialty drugs will have to be explored. New strategies for new customer groups and geographies will have to be formed.

Only innovative thinking can solve Indian pharma marketing woes. The question is, Are pharma marketers up for it?

Docplexus – Pharma’s Trusted Marketing Partner
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