Founded in 2000 with the mission of curing cancer, Merrimack Pharmaceuticals is a publically traded biopharmaceutical company known for innovative diagnostics and treatments. The company’s 350 employees have produced multiple cancer therapies now in clinical trials or in latestage preclinical development.

The Challenge

Merrimack Pharmaceuticals is transforming oncology research. Rather than adopt traditional time-consuming and costly trial-and-error methods, Merrimack embraced computational modeling and quantitative biology to guide the design and development of new cancerfighting drugs. This innovative approach requires tight interdisciplinary collaboration among wet lab scientists and computational modelers who work side-by-side throughout the drug discovery process. The importance of this interdisciplinary collaboration was reflected in an organizational design featuring teams focused around each therapeutic molecule, rather than by functional departments. To allow innovation to be driven by scientists with an entrepreneurial spirit, Merrimack created the “PODs” as its early drug discovery engine. Each POD consisted of a small core team of two to three scientists initially who generate excitement for the idea. As the idea matured into a therapeutic molecule, the POD became a therapeutic team, and its size and composition changed dynamically depending on the program size and clinical development stage.

Though Merrimack has achieved considerable success with this collaborative approach, this working model has encountered challenges as the company has grown. As Merrimack’s first drug approached commercial stage, another potential threat to collaboration loomed on the horizon. The company had already doubled in size—expanding its physical footprint across multiple floors of the company’s Massachusetts office, making interpersonal connection more difficult and relationships more diluted. Becoming a commercial organization would mean even more rapid growth.

Merrimack’s leaders felt it was an important time to understand the current state of their organization and whether they were living its collaborative vision. Were PODS connected in the way the company’s founders had envisioned? Were the scientists capitalizing enough on the work of their colleagues in order to accelerate progress and leverage synergies? Did individual scientists have the right connections to advance their work? What unseen barriers might be stifling innovation as the organization continued to grow?

The Solution

With the help of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®), Merrimack embarked on a project to better understand connectivity and leadership within and among pods in the Discovery Division. They wanted to determine what steps might be needed to build and sustain robust collaborative networks that support innovation.

As a first step, CCL researchers explored how work happens at Merrimack and which networks among people and teams are most critical to success. They measured the density of connections within and across three important boundaries:

  1. Vertical boundaries among management levels
  2. Horizontal boundaries among work pods and other professional groups
  3. Geographic boundaries within and across workspaces

Three surveys were conducted over an 18-month timeframe involving about 45 co-located discovery wet lab scientists and engineers. In addition, CCL researchers interviewed more than half of the individuals in the Discovery Division to collect contextual information and to get a better grasp on how work was getting accomplished.

The results helped Merrimack fill in “the whitespace” on their organizational chart; by measuring and understanding their actual patterns of collaboration they took informed action to support and extend the company’s collaborative vision.

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