AMICULUM Consulting Blog
What can pharma learn from the renaissance in British cycling?


In the aftermath of the great 2012 Olympics in London and Chris Froome’s commanding Tour de France victory in 2013 I have been struck by a couple of reports and interviews around the success of British cycling that might have implications in our sector. In particular, there are two characteristics that Sir Dave Brailsford (Director of Team Sky and Team GB cycling) notes as key to their success, both of which are potentially applicable in pharma. These are:

1. The mantra of marginal improvements
2. The ability to take tough decisions

In one of the (many) interviews after a British cyclist had pedalled their way to Gold in the 2012 Olympics, one of the team was saying that there had been some internal job changes and a coach had been appointed, nay promoted, to Director of Marginal Improvements. What a great job title – but probably not one you will find on many situation vacant pages. Sir Dave Brailsford (right now arguably the most successful sports coach in the world) has long been a champion of marginal improvements and has deployed this philosophy to the benefit of team Sky and team GB – he even cheekily hinted that it might work for England footballers’ penalty-taking ability (word of advice Dave, don’t bother, they would ruin your reputation).

In sports like cycling, where winning margins can be hundredths of a second, such incremental improvements can have a big impact. But can marginal improvements apply to pharmaceutical drug development, commercialization or marketing? AMICULUM Consulting believes they can, especially if deployed in the right scenario and at the right time.

As an industry we have, to a degree, embraced elements of this approach in some disciplines. In production and supply chain management ‘Kaizen’ practices have often been deployed. In the commercial sector, however, we seem more enamoured with revolution and big ideas than we are on the potential positive impact of lots of ‘baby steps’ or the synergy of small increments. Strategic lifecycle management (LCM) is becoming more important in the new commercial reality (‘post-blockbuster world’, ‘Pharma 3.0’ – pick your own cliché) and we believe that this is an area where marginal improvements can have a significant and tangible impact. This is especially true for the late-stage LCM, where global brand teams may in the past have had low or no investment or engagement, especially relative to local or national teams. Yet it is here where a small change can have a massive impact on profitability because mature brands often have both high sales volume and reasonable margins. Recently, some companies have set up small but well-resourced global teams to support mature brands with collective initiatives which can delay loss of exclusivity or help to maintain share in this critical and highly profitable late stage.

A range of effective tools and ideas has been developed to inform and drive marginal improvements in a number of the late-stage brand scenarios. Such tools and initiatives can be supported from global or regional centres and then rolled out to different markets depending on need and brand status. Implementation of these tools will benefit many mature pharmaceutical brands through a variety of impacts:

  • Small extensions to patent life
  • Market share protection (or the equally valuable delays to erosion)
  • Resource deployment tweaks
  • Added value enhancements ‘beyond the pill’
  • Leveraging the power of maturity and scale

LCM is one area within pharma that could benefit from embracing the concept of marginal improvements, but it is not by any means the only one. What if we could improve the accuracy of our forecasting by 1%? Or the matching of key value drivers to trial outputs? A little improvement at the right time and in the right place can have a big impact on market share in the out-years.

One of the other factors Sir Dave Brailsford credits for his team’s successes is the ability to take tough decisions (see Jason Kenny’s selection comment in the BBC article). A scientific and objective approach to team selection under Brailsford was apparent some years before the recent successes. The figure below dates from a pre-Knighthood article entitled, Inside the Mind of Dave Brailsford, published in 2011 (courtesy of Cycle Sport). It is, with the benefit of hindsight, intriguing to note the relative positions of BW and CF (Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome) at that time. Each is circled in red on this figure. This chart, coupled with the comments in the article, illustrates how Team Sky embraces a highly analytical approach to team management and future planning. Such objectivity can help in making those tough decisions by providing supportive evidence and tracking changes over time, which further builds on the evidence base. However, in this case it also shows how objective data do need the human touch or expert, subjective input too. In 2011, Froome was in category 5 on the chart, a grouping described at that time as ‘borderline’ team members! Clearly something happened with CF in that 12-month time window which, it seems, exonerates the combination of an analytical team-based approach coupled with the inspirational strength and motivational skills of a great leader and latent talent spotter. In 2013, Froome was already identified as the Team Sky lead racer for the Tour de France even before Wiggins’ withdrawal through injury. Tough decision made – another tour victory follows. 

It seems that dropping ‘Knights of the Realm’ for younger men who are deemed to have the best chance of winning comes naturally to this coach – let’s hope his own elevation to this exalted status does not colour his judgement or ability to make the tough calls.

If you need help with tough calls and objective decision-making or with identifying the ideal areas for ‘incremental improvement’ AMICULUM Consulting can help. We have a great prioritization tool, which in a time-poor or resource-constrained environment can be invaluable in helping you decide which of the many marginal increments could have the biggest impact for different brands, scenarios or markets.

For more information about this blog topic or to discuss any of these ideas further please contact the team at team at