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ChangeMakers XCHANGE: Stephane Verhaeghe MD

Updated: May 26

Country Medical Head ANZ at Biogen

MD Neurologist working in pharmaceutical industry with experience in clinical research and the development industry. Passionate about innovation, entrepreneurship and management.

What are your roles in work and life? I’m the Medical Director for Biogen.  I lead a team of scientists dedicated to delivering the best outcomes for our patients. We work every day and wake up every morning for this objective. My role in life is an interesting question. You know, I have a very positive view of life and I try to share this positive vision and make people happier around me.  Especially the most important people in my life, my wife and my son.

What is the precursor to innovate, to change the status quo or to disrupt for you?

The precursor is inducing a question.  You’re in front of a situation and there is a question, a challenge or a specific project or activity.  And you ask yourself:  How can I help to make things better?

What comes next?

The next step in a work environment is trying to get a few advocates.  Bring them in front of the same challenge and say “How are we going to overcome this challenge?“  Often they say “In the past we approached it like this, so let’s do this same…” And yes, maybe you can.  But you may also say, “It may have worked well in the past, but it may not work this time or it was not really working well…”

📷To create the environment to innovate, you need to give the time, resources, and the people the opportunity to innovate by saying – Ok, we are not just going to do our ‘everyday work’ but we are going to do something more explorative.

There is a very interesting book called Lead and Disrupt- How to solve the Innovator’s Dilemma by O’Reilly and Tushman (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28162949-lead-and-disrupt)– they say, new leaders need to be ambidextrous. They need to make the company successful from the business point of view – they call this exploitation– and they also need to be flexible enough to also take time to explore.  They need to create the environment where you can do exploitation and do explorations to find new avenues for innovation, to find new avenues for solutions.

How do you create the environment for exploration?

Actually, I think it’s at the management level that you need to convince people how it’s important to explore.  Innovation can’t be a stretch, it has to be part of the objective, it has to be part of your working time to explore, to think outside of the box – not 100% of your time, around 20% - and then you will be able to innovate and disrupt.

What does it look like leading innovation in a highly regulated industry?

It’s working in an environment in which you need to identify every stakeholder, understand and be in their shoes - all the time. By having people on board from different departments, making sure everyone understands that we are doing the right things, that we test things without putting our ethics or compliance in danger.

What works for me is getting everyone on board early.  Even if it’s just an idea or concept, I make sure that everyone is aware and understands that we are starting to explore.  Communication is very important. The more they know, the more they understand and the more they are on board.   It takes time. And that’s frustrating sometimes as it takes more time than we would like, but it’s the key to success.

How do you keep energised and stimulated, to maintain the momentum?

My motivation is the patients – definitely. That’s where I find my energy and become totally stimulated. When I think about new innovative solutions, I can put myself in the future and imagine how great it will be for the patients.

You have to understand the WHY.

You also have to admit that you can fail. If you fail and you say next time I’m not going to use all this energy again, because I will potentially fail again, then you’re not ready to innovate.

You have to accept that probably 9 times out of 10, you’re going to fail. You have to say, Ok I learned from that, let’s try again, and again, and again.  And I like that.  I definitely like that.

I don’t like to fail but I like the purpose.  Understanding the WHY.

Science is like that - 90% frustration and failure.  But you know that one day you will succeed and you will change the life of patients. And that’s amazing.

How do you get others to keep going with your vision?

The feedback that I get from people is that I’m an extremely passionate person, and I really try to give that passion to others.  The positive way of harnessing life.  Really giving them the WHY, then sharing that big tank of positive energy that I have.

When you show that you are really energised, motivated and you really express that, it can wake up some people to say ‘Oh wow, yeah ok, why not’.  Other may say ‘I’m scared, I’m not ready…” and perhaps it’s not their thing.  That’s why we are a community and diverse.  Some people are more ready to run things, while others are more ready to make things new.  It’s exploitation versus exploration.  We need both to be successful.

What’s your process or approach to innovation?

The first thing is to IDENTIFY THE CHALLENGE – where the answer does not yet exist or starting with the question: What if…

From there you need to GATHER INFORMATION – INSIGHTS and DATA. You really need to try to understand the problem, see what already exists, take time to ask people questions.

I believe in workshopping with people to really understand deeply - What’s the environment? What are the challenges? And why doesn’t a solution exist yet?

From there you start to IMAGINE your solution.  When you have one or two solutions, you choose the best one to PROTOTYPE.  You’re not going straight to market.  You’re prototyping your first version of the idea or the solution -  then you TEST it in a very safe environment.   And then you decide, GO or NO GO.  It’s also taking it step-by-step.  Alright, we have this answer - ok, is it a GO or NO GO?  If yes, then go to the next step. And then again.

The last thing I would like to say is when you are presenting your prototype – you have to say, ‘PLEASE KILL THIS IDEA AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE!”  It’s better to fail early in the process than at the end.   Ask ‘If there is any problem with the prototype, please tell us – be very harsh with the idea, try to break it, don’t be complacent – because if we can’t pass this stage, then that’s a sign that it’s not right.’

What are the key attributes you believe you need to have to be a ChangeMaker or to lead change?

I would say – 2 things.

The first thing is the Purpose.  Really having a purpose that touches people emotionally.   If you have a team member who has really great potential for bringing great ideas, but this person is not trained to be creative or to be innovative, you need to find the right purpose that makes this person feel, yes, alright, I’m in – I understand WHY.

The second thing is really speaking with that person about ‘Are you ready to be out of your comfort zone?’  Then really helping that person to make the decision so they get to the point of ‘Yes ok, I trust you, let’s take me out of my comfort zone.’

How do you build trust with your team?

First, demonstrate that it’s possible to do it.

Second, demonstrate that I’ve failed a lot and it’s fine to fail.  It’s a question of being vulnerable.  Showing your vulnerability and that you’re just a human.  And then you create trust.

What sort of behaviours or routines do you have to keep your creativity alive and your mind open to new possibilities?

The best routine if probably not having a routine.  It’s putting yourself in new environments, trying new things and being curious every day. Wanting to learn every day. Curiosity is my routine.

What or who inspires you and why?

What really inspires me is I believe in humanity. I believe humans are good. You see what beautiful things we can do.  In my life, I always see the bottle half full.  That’s what gets me up in the morning. What really inspires me is that we can help each other, share love and do things better together.

At Biogen, our mission is clear: we are pioneers in neuroscience. Biogen discovers, develops, and delivers worldwide innovative therapies for people living with serious neurological and neurodegenerative diseases.

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