Cindy Hoots, Chief Information Officer & Chief Digital Officer at AstraZeneca

Chief Information Officer & Chief Digital Officer at AstraZeneca

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WorkBoard at AstraZeneca


Business Process Owner:
Sr Director of Transformation, Strategy & Performance

WorkBoard Scope:
Global IT Department-Wide, OKR Coach Certification, and Results Management Leader Certification

Key impacts:
Outcome-mindset adoption, Strategic alignment across globally distributed workforce

OKR coaches:

Customer since:

As the leader of AstraZeneca’s large, distributed IT organization, how do you lead your team to contribute to achieving the organization’s bold vision?

Cindy Hoots, Chief Information Officer & Chief Digital Officer at AstraZeneca: One of the things that we're doing, especially in this digital era, is thinking about the way in which technology can be used to really change the way healthcare is provided and kind of reimagine what's possible. So we've been looking at our corporate ambition, our company strategy, thinking what is the IT 2025 strategy that would help really propel us. So we’ve spent the past nine, ten months developing that strategy, we've just completed all of our operating model changes that were needed to really support the strategy. And now we're focused on how we get those ways of working ironed out so that these new teams, these new constructs, can really work at speed.

It’s an exciting time to be a CIO in a pharmaceutical company. Data and digital are so central to discovery. What’s on the horizon in the AstraZeneca IT org?

We talk about the industrial revolution and the digital revolution. I think the next revolution will be biological, where we get into hyper-personalization of just about everything. So being in the life sciences business has just been phenomenal to be kind of at the forefront of that kind of industry-leading change.

We've been really excited about the way in which we've been using AI and data to really advance drug discovery. Think about how we use our clinical trials. We're using a lot of virtual reality in ways that I never expected in a pharmaceutical company.

But all the way down to the way in which we can work with healthcare providers to enhance patient care. Across the company, we're really seeing this industry take hold of digital in a way that probably hasn't been done in the previous 10 years.

By using standardization as a competitive advantage, we’re thinking about where we need to be different and where we can actually get speed and velocity by reusing and scaling processes that we've already tried in the company.

Let’s talk about your ability to mobilize quickly. Do you think the pandemic and, more recently the war in Europe, are accelerating how we use technology, AI, and data to advance the business?

Because of the regulated nature of pharmaceuticals, there is a certain protocol we've always followed. COVID took some of those belief systems and radically changed them at a much faster pace. We really had to make sure we continued to protect the important areas of our business. But in so many other areas we could think differently.

I think lots of companies experienced that. The work that we did with COVID, really honed us into a common vision, a common mission. This wasn't just about our company making money. This was about how could we play a meaningful role in really changing the trajectory of this pandemic.

And we just saw an explosion of technology, whether it was a movement to team in eight days, looking at digital detailing, which is the way in which we were going to interact with our healthcare providers. You know, we rolled out a whole new digital way of doing that in less than two weeks. And people were focused on how do I get it done? Not if I could do it. And that was a major shift we're trying to work on how do we keep that kind of momentum and way of working into this next chapter.

There’s a myth that large enterprises move slowly. Over the last couple of years, many organizations learned that they can operate much faster. How has your speed of business accelerated?

Coming from consumer goods, I remember my first town hall at AstraZeneca. I told the team, ‘I want to take 90% of the time and 75% of the cost out of everything we do.’ And I think there was this apprehension of ‘what is she talking about'?’ And then, just a few weeks later, we hit COVID and we were doing it. We were deploying things at speed, making decisions at speed, going all in with minimum viable products, rather than a fully-baked, full-fledged system that took us 18 months to design.

I think it's given a lot of companies, including our own, confidence that we can do it differently. So that's been a really fun. It’s still a change journey to drive that alignment across the organization, but it’s been a huge accelerant.

Let’s shift to your 2025 strategy. How are you mobilizing that strategy and how do you plan to sustain and maintain that urgency, that value velocity?

For us, one of the major shifts was we are a federated business and have a lot of local autonomy. And as a result, we had a lot of different systems that were quite localized. There were areas where we might have duplicate systems because things were slightly different in one country. And that's quite typical in a federated kind of business model.

What we're really looking at now is how we get scale and speed. By using standardization as a competitive advantage, we’re thinking about where we need to be different and where we can actually get speed and velocity by reusing and scaling processes that we've already tried in the company.

And it's been great to see a bit of that momentum continuing to accelerate. People are more interested in it now than I would say they were pre-COVID. And I think all of a sudden we realize, wow, we can work differently and really increase that velocity.

As we move into this digital era, this patient-centric world, what patients want and what they’re demanding is changing. It's really agility that you need to be able to respond and thrive in that world.

What’s the difference between doing digital and being digital?

For so many people, including myself, when you first get exposed to this new digital way of working, it's typically led by technology. What can I do with AI? How can I use blockchain? You're looking for great ideas, the use case that I could apply this to.

Once you learn what these technologies can do, what you want to do is then shift into a mode where you're thinking about what are the great problems that need solving. And what I like about that is it really focuses everyone and gets everyone to the problem at hand.

All of a sudden it stops being, ‘Oh, we're gonna do these digital things, or we have this digital strategy too.’ We have a business strategy that's enabled through digital, and that's a fairly major shift that I think companies need to do.

When you're doing digital, you're in experimentation mode and you're looking at all these different options. What you really then want to do as you're transforming is think about which of those can we scale, because you need scale to have AI and the quantity of data to get these kinds of new and novel insights.

When it becomes pervasive and it's democratized and it's just the way that everyone does their job, rather than this group of people over here that do digital - I think that's when we see the exponential benefits of digital really helping companies to thrive.

As you think about applying these technologies in the context of the problem, how have you structured the IT organization? Do you think about teaming today the same way you thought about it five years ago?

Definitely not. I think it's this whole switch from product-centricity into patientcentricity. Moving from the industrial era into the digital or patient-centric or consumer-centric world, you have to work completely differently.

The industrial era really was centered around organizational silos that became very efficient. You knew what product you were going to build, and then you could organize yourself in a silo to be the most efficient at producing that. As we move into this digital era, this patient-centric world, what patients want and what they're demanding is changing. It's really agility that you need to be able to respond and thrive in that world.

As a result, these cross-functional, multidisciplinary agile teams are really how we get work done. And I think that's a big shift because we've all had fairly successful careers working in a different way. And now we're asking people to take all those things that helped them be so successful up to this point and think about work differently and be willing to collaborate more and not be as commanding and controlling as leaders, but really democratize decision-making and drive empowerment. And that can be scary, especially if you don't feel like you can’t keep control in that kind of environment.

For us, we went from a more siloed R&D commercial, finance, and IT organization structure, to having far more horizontal teams around data and AI. We put together a new, what we call Strategy and Execution Team that really helps that alignment. I've got quite a large team, so when you think of that many people around the world, you need to keep everyone aligned and on the same page in terms of vision, strategy, and how we'll execute.

It was one of the structural things I did first in order to then allow the rest of the organization to move into this new operating model and unlock the potential of this new way of working.

Tell us about your Strategy Execution Team. What led you to put that function and team in place?

It was one of the first things that I did. It was one of the first big horizontals I created. And again, it's this movement of, when you have a more decentralized R&D, IT, or a commercial IT team, the alignment is there because you're closer to the people. The alignment is a bit easier because you're having more interactions.

But then we had to elevate that to the enterprise level, in this digital era. All of a sudden, we more than quadrupled the number of people that needed to know the same thing. So having that alignment in driving our measurements against the strategy and making sure people had a shared vision was going to be really, really important. So, it was one of the structural things I did first in order to then allow the rest of the organization to move into this new operating model and unlock the potential of this new way of working.

What were some of the cultural dynamics you faced while making this transition to more horizontal or lateral teaming?

We came up with the concept of One IT to allow us to think of ourselves as one group. Depending on what the business need is, we can flow to that work. We don't have to stay within a rigid hierarchy. So I still have 50 people on my team, but we allow ourselves to kind of flow to what was important.

You know, COVID showed us that all of a sudden we found ourselves in the vaccine business, and we had to stand up whole new teams to address that. So I think one of the things is helping people to see how they can be part of a bigger environment. So not only just in IT, but one AstraZeneca. How can things that we're learning in R&D help us progress the agenda in commercial, et cetera?

All of a sudden, we've got some cross-functional teams and maybe my initiative isn't the most important. Those teams are having to trade off and balance across different areas. But the benefit is being able to then scale those teams, to know what they've built once and then can actually offer it up to another area far more quickly than each of them rebuilding independently.

How do OKRs play a part in cross-functional teaming at AstraZeneca?

So, we've needed to spend more time on our OKRs. That's something that we've been introducing and that's been a big cultural shift. How do you get shared alignment? How do you view the contribution of all the teams towards something? So we took the strategy and we now have four pillars and each of them has two priorities.

We started by working with each of the teams to understand what is their contribution to that priority? And what we found was some people had the same thing - They all thought they were playing the same role. So we could see where the duplication was happening. And then, in some areas, we had nobody thinking it was their responsibility, and so we had to align and really have more rich conversations. The contribution map, I think, was one of the key things that we did that really helped us.

That's one of these big shifts between this industrial era and the digital era. In an industrial era, it really was about what is the remit of your team? How many people do you have? How much budget do you control?

And the bigger that was, the higher up in the organization you typically were. You need more experience, et cetera, to manage that. But in the digital era, it's about small teams, small amounts of money doing incredibly impactful things. So that's something that we talk about on a really regular basis is that it's, it's more about the impact you have, it's not about these activities and these initiatives and how many projects you have simultaneously. But can you ruthlessly prioritize to the point of impact and do those things that are most impactful rather than just keeping you busy.

It's more about the impact you have, it's not about these activities and these initiatives and how many projects you have simultaneously. But can you ruthlessly prioritize to the point of impact and do those things that are most impactful rather than just keeping you busy.

When you shift from Activities to Outcomes, there may be a struggle to get things right the first time around. How have you approached this shift in mindset around where value is created?

From a cultural perspective, it used to be that red statuses were bad and in an industrial era, where you're doing things repeatedly, you're striving for efficiency. A red in that context may not be good.

But in this dynamic world where things are changing, what you were doing today is very different than what's going to be needed from you next week. Of course, you're going to have things that don't go perfectly well. What's really nice is that because you're spending less time and less money, if it doesn't go perfectly well, you can make a decision. Do we just stop?

Maybe we thought it was a good idea, but you know, that hypothesis isn't proving out or you're in these short interval reviews and, and retrospectives that you can course correct much more quickly. So, encouraging people to be really transparent really quickly when they can no longer progress something on their own and they need some help, I think is a new competency for most of us.

Making space for internal retrospectives is such an important process. How do you build these retrospectives into your operating cadence?

You start by saying, this is what we think are the best outcomes in this 90-day period. And then you pursue those at the end of the 90 days. One of the most powerful parts is what you ask - what was our hypothesis? Were our assumptions true?

And some of those assumptions are about how the outside world is going to change. We have no control over that. And I think all of us have learned that in the last two and a half years, on a variety of different levels. We cannot predict everything. But this is an opportunity to ask what changed outside, and what did we learn inside? Did we bite off more than we can chew or, this was a lot harder technically than we understood?

We used to set Objectives for somebody for a year and then evaluate them at the end of the year. Again, that works really well in an industrial era. Yeah. You know, kind of mass production era when things change very slowly. So now, I always try to talk to people about this because what you don't want to do is, revert back to whatever we used to do.

At the time it met the business needs. Now the consumer and the patients are changing and their expectations of us are changing and they want far more say in what products get produced, how they get produced, and how they go to market than probably any other decade. That's hitting all of our industries. That consumer voice, the patient voice, is so strong that we have to be able to adapt.

That's hitting all of our industries. That consumer voice, the patient voice, is so strong that we have to be able to adapt.

Tell us more about how your Strategy Execution Team manages the OKR cycle and the tools they use.

So they own the overall methodology, framework, and tools. And we kind of started getting them educated first and as a result, they can then team up with each of my LTE members. They also derive the strategy, which is really helpful because they're intimate with what it is we're trying to achieve. They've invested in really understanding what that is. And so it's a natural step to then be managing the execution. And everyone, was really excited about it, really wanting to do it. We picked one group and we'd go deep and we'd let them really learn how to do it. So we started with the Strategy and Performance team, so they adopted OKRs first. And then we almost throttled it. Instead of push model, we created a scarcity in supply, which then drove the demand.

When we went to roll it out, each team was really ready. Their projects were at a place where they could really devote the time and attention and learn this new way of working. And now we've rolled it out across IT. And now what we're trying to do is do that lateral connection. So we started a bit in the silos of let's just start with the things that you're familiar with. Let's get you familiar with the process and how to do this. And now we're starting to work more and more laterally within IT. And now, across the business.

So that same Strategy and Performance team is actually helping other business units in Australia and New Zealand, et cetera, learn how to do it as well. So, we have a motto at AstraZeneca around ‘think big, start small, scale fast.’ And we've been using that model. We started with Strategy and Performance, rolling it out to IT, and then scaling hopefully across the business.

I've always been a big believer in strategy and execution teams going together. It's very difficult if you've got one group developing a strategy and another group then implementing that strategy. Having a perspective on both sides is a bit more powerful and moves the needle.

How are you attracting, enabling, and empowering talent making sure they're thriving and contributing to AstraZeneca's mission?

I think what we saw coming out of COVID is a lot of companies realized they'd been underinvesting in technology. And as a result, they've kicked off quite a number of projects, and their boards, their management teams, have unleashed a lot of financial investment in technology. And it's kind of created this great resignation that we're all living through. For a variety of reasons, people want to look at new opportunities.

I think COVID made us question what was really important to us. For us, it's really about a holistic approach. We have two big technology centers. One in Shanghai, one in Guadalajara, and we've kind of changed the remit of them. While they were more service centers in the past, we're now driving a lot of innovation, and we're starting to see that that's really attracting new talent and helping the existing talent, really see the benefit of how they contribute to the company.

It’s also important to be a bit more entrepreneurial. We started this program called P100, through which people can sign up and devote 30% of their time. So we're leveraging things like hackathons and building more of a creative kind of environment. But talking a bit more about purpose, we attract people, especially given that we only do life-saving medicines.

Early in my career, I was very focused on results and, well, it didn't take too long to realize that if you focus on people, they'll give you the results. So, we spend a lot of time on our talent and making sure that they've got great opportunities for promotions, great opportunities to do work that matters.

Someone once told me, if you have a group people playing soccer, but they don't know which goal is theirs, how do you play the game? So if people don't understand what the objective is, what the goal is, what the vision is, they're just kind of floundering on a field trying to make sure nobody scores. They don't want to accidentally, score on their own goal. So bringing that clarity is really important.

Early in my career, I was very focused on results and, well, it didn't take too long to realize that if you focus on people, they'll give you the results.

What’s your advice for other CIOs who are thinking about how they mobilize their bold transformation strategy? How do they get people aligned, enabled, and empowered to make their best contribution?

Never before has technology played this large of a role in business and we've always been an enabler or a business partner. Technology is now creating new business models. And I think my first advice is that you and your team should think of yourselves as business leaders first and technologists second.

When you get in that business mindset, all of a sudden, because of your expertise in technology, you're able to help create new opportunities for your company. And that is a big mindset shift. One of the things we're working on is how do you become more of that thought partner versus just really good at executing what you've been asked.

My second piece of advice is that nothing matters more than the people that you have on your team. So, make sure that you've got an amazing team. I have an ITLT that is phenomenal. And I just beam when I think about each of them as individuals, but more importantly, how do you get them to work as a team and get those exponential?

So don't be complacent about talent, make sure that you've got the right talent for the environment and that they feel like they are contributing. And if you don't feel that way about your team, then you might want to reevaluate how can you move things around a little bit and look at other people in the organization.

My third piece of advice is just go for it. All of this stuff is new. None of us knew how to do it. Don't let perfect get in the way. So often we're so used to only wanting to do things that we know will really work. This is a new skill set, so demonstrate for your team that it's okay to not have all the answers, not to do it perfectly. Getting started is more important than getting it perfect.

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About Cindy Hoots

Cindy Hoots is a Chief Digital Officer and CIO at AstraZeneca, leading a step-change in how the company embraces digital technology to enable their strategy. Prior to joining AstraZeneca, Cindy was the Global Vice President, Technology at Unilever, where she was accountable for all technology in 140 global markets. She also held a variety of leadership roles at companies, such as BAT, SABMiller, ITT Corporation.

About AstraZeneca

Headquartered in Cambridge, UK, AstraZeneca is a global, science-led biopharmaceutical company that focuses on the discovery, development and commercialization of prescription medicines. They focus on three main therapy areas – Oncology, Cardiovascular & Metabolic Disease (CVMD), and Respiratory – and they are also selectively active in the areas of autoimmunity, neuroscience, and infection. AstraZeneca has over 83,000 employees worldwide.

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