Kate Villari, Senior Director, Transformation, Strategy & Performance at AstraZeneca

Senior Director, Transformation, Strategy & Performance 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:

How do you approach org-wide transformation at AstraZeneca today?

Kate Villari, Sr Director, Transformation, Strategy & Performance at AstraZeneca: We have three strategic priorities in the company. The first is to deliver growth and therapy area leadership, and this one’s really about transforming healthcare delivery across the whole patient experience, from disease prevention and awareness through post-treatment and wellness. The second, accelerating innovative science, is about creating and developing medicines through our pipeline. So, we want to disrupt R&D platforms with new scientific modalities and new technologies, things like cell therapy and epigenetics, and building out our capabilities in areas like immunology and rare disease. And we also always strive to be a great place to work. So for us, this is about both caring for our people and contributing to society.

Like many companies that are emerging stronger from the pandemic, we’ve got new momentum as a company. We make these life-saving medicines, we have some of the top researchers in the world, and we’re an organization that’s absolutely loaded with brilliant people. And over the course of the pandemic, like many other successful companies, we’ve broken barriers in science, in regulatory, in manufacturing. When you think about the scale of that, 2.5 billion [COVID-19] vaccines, even as somebody who works here, it’s hard for me to comprehend that kind of scale.

So we’ve learned that we can transform ourselves when the conditions are right. And when I joined AstraZeneca, we were already in the midst of a digital transformation before the pandemic hit. So following the pandemic, the appetite for transformation extends to all areas.

OKRs can actually create a sense of stability in this everchanging environment.

Tell us about your digital transformation journey at AstraZeneca.

We all know that in business, speed wins the race. That’s where OKRs and WorkBoard come into the picture for global IT. If you think about what any change agent in any company is facing today, it’s pretty intense. You’re dealing with a set of macro conditions beyond your control, they’re going to affect the pace of the changes that you want to make.

Things like geo-political unrest, inflationary market condition, supply chain disruption, the great resignation, these are impacting all of us every day and working against the change we want to make. But then even within your organization, you’ve got micro-conditions, these further impact the rate of change, right?

We’re loaded with brilliant innovators, we’re generating more ideas than we can possibly execute on, we’re growing like crazy as an organization, and so that should be really tricky without a solution like WorkBoard, because if you don’t have a clear and transparent set of priorities in a way that’s capturing those ideas, then everything feels urgent. And in my experience, the urgent will cannibalize the important all day long.

OKRs can actually create a sense of stability in this ever-changing environment. When you define the right set of work and you make sure everyone on the team knows what the right pieces of work are, that stability that you get from that creates some space in your mind, and it just gives you the safety and the headspace to really focus on just going and doing those things right.

WorkBoard allows us to beautifully prioritize and transparently communicate.

Where is AstraZeneca in its OKR journey?

This is my fourth organizational performance management system setup, it’s the first time doing OKRs. I’ve done two similar systems to OKRs and one that was completely custom, and I’ve done both in the public sector and in the private sector, so I’ve a pretty good smattering of experience on this. And I’ll tell you, it looks different each time, at each company. Every organization has different requirements, and every organization is unique. What works one place is not necessarily going to work at another, and I’ve definitely learned that the hard way.

OKRs, for me, haven’t gone perfectly at AstraZeneca. I’m about 18 months in and I don’t have the exact progress I wanted, but we’re getting there. And the people who have embraced it are truly loving the change. Would I have loved to have done this in 90 days? Of course, I would have. I’ve done that before with another system, but that wasn’t right for us. But by the end of Q2, we’re going to have about half of our 5000 global IT employees using OKR, and by year end, we might get to 100%, maybe not, but we’re headed in the right direction. My team and I feel really, really good about that, because balancing the pace of change with our primary goal of helping patients live better lives is really important. And sometimes, or maybe every time, that patient needs to come before the OKR change journey.

What does horizontal or cross-functional alignment look like today?

We really believe as a company that we can cure cancer. Our brilliant employees are moving mountains and they’re depending on us for the right machinery. So as more of global IT uses WorkBoard and OKR and we get to cross-functional prioritization, we get closer to simplicity in a very complex environment. And when we create that simplicity, we can focus. And then when we can focus, we’re gonna pick up speed. WorkBoard is helping us pick up speed by making the strategy real to everybody at every level of the organisation. We’ve done a decent job of that already. We launched our IT 2025 Strategy in December of 2020 and it really resonated with people and they really rallied behind it but now we’re able to amplify that significantly using WorkBoard.

People know what our strategy means, they understand what we’re driving towards and they get that tangible connect into our purpose, which is such a motivator to avoid drift. And avoiding drift equals speed.

One of the biggest challenges that we had as a new team, because strategy and performance didn’t exist as a bigger team until November of 2020, was that colleagues didn’t know. We put a whole bunch of people together and they didn’t know what our priorities were, how their work connected to the strategy. And for those of you who don’t know me, I’m not a particularly patient person so I needed to fix that, and fast. And after just one full quarter of using OKRs in strategy and performance, all of our team members moved into a positive range of both understanding our functional priorities, when surveyed, and understanding how our functional priorities in strategy and performance align to our global IT strategy.

As more of global IT uses WorkBoard and OKRs and we get to cross-functional prioritization, we get closer to simplicity in a very complex environment. And when we create that simplicity, we can focus. And then when we can focus, we’re gonna pick up speed.

How has the operating rhythm changed since doubling down on strategy execution over the past two years?

I just love that I can see progress to plan every single week, and it’s just part of our routine to make those updates. The digital operating rhythm, when you start to get that and you start to hit that stride, everything feels different. And I love that I can go in whenever I want, on the fly, on my phone, and see exactly where we are on everything I care about without asking anybody on my team to do any extra work and any extra PowerPoint. I also love that it’s transparent and everyone in AstraZeneca can see here’s what I’m holding myself accountable to, and here’s what you should count on us to deliver to hopefully make your job easier and better. And I could reach everyone at every level of my team with the push of a button. So even though we’re still building our outcomes muscle, just asking the question helps to refine the thinking and get the alignment and lands on the right work. And that conversation is getting much richer and much stronger, the more and more we practice. And to that end, just about two weeks ago, as the strategy and performance team was heading into their third full quarter of OKRs, we added an entirely new group to our organization that doubled our size. Doubled our size.

And even as a brand-new combined team, we just set our goals in two weeks. I thought that was extraordinary to double your size and then to reduce the time from the previous quarter that it took you to set your organizational goals. And our new joiners, the quality team, they weren’t even doing OKRs yet, top to bottom. So that’s how quickly they adapted and got right in with us.

And not only did they lean in and jump right to the occasion but when they did, they brought forward some really good ideas about how we could structure our goals, that we adopted right away. So that cross-functional pollination is already paying off for us. And now we really have a full market. So we have many teams in AstraZeneca IT and in other places reaching out and tapping us for experience or ideas or how they can get it to work, to the point where we have more demand than we can fulfill. But we have a system called WorkBoard that allows us to beautifully prioritize and transparently communicate, “Here’s what we’re gonna do, here’s what we’re gonna do, here’s when we’re gonna have it done by and this is what you can expect.”

Describe your company’s process of ‘embracing the red’.

When you’re in these heavily regulated environments, where somebody is going to go in and evaluate, a regulator or someone else, every single step of everything you’ve done to make sure that it’s exactly to spec, and if not, that’s going to cause a bunch of challenges, it really creates sort of an over-indexing on the cost and taking all that time and, “I’ve gotta get it to green. I’ve gotta get it to green before I move forward.” Just trying to reverse that conditioning is really pretty hard. It’s not that we didn’t have the right cultural condition, it’s just that the way the work gets done in a science-based organization. So I think for a lot of people, they were thrilled. It’s just so refreshing to see leadership come in and say, “Look, it’s okay. I’d rather see the red because I want to know where the problems are.” And Cindy will say, “And if I see a scorecard full of greens, I don’t think you guys are challenging yourself enough. So I would suggest that you raise the bar, before I raise it on your behalf.” And I love that it really drives people to aspire to a new level of performance.

People know what our strategy means, they understand what we’re driving towards and they get that tangible connect into our purpose, which is such a motivator to avoid drift. And avoiding drift equals speed.

What’s your experience been implementing OKRs in a heavily regulated industry, like Pharma?

I think it’s the organizational culture can work against you more so than in other places. You’re gonna get pushbacks in an OKR change wherever you try it. There’s going to be probably a great core of people that are leaning in and are ready to go. You’re going to have that group in the middle that wants to be on board but needs a little convincing and then you’re going to have the full-on resistors at the end of the curve. And so I think that regulatory gives you another... It’s an ammunition against the change. Because it’s hard to argue with somebody that says, “Well, I can’t do my work that way because this is how I have to work with the regulators.” It may take a lot of conversation and a lot of empathy to help that person understand why they should open up and why there is a different way. But to me, I think that’s the biggest challenge.

How is the digital operating rhythm accelerating your 2025 plan?

I’d hold time on everybody’s calendar on Friday, to do their updates, all my directs. And then we’re looking at those updates. I’m looking at those updates Friday afternoon and then by Monday, as everybody gets in and starts to have their regular team meeting, I’m asking what are the escalations that you guys have that you can feed up into my meetings so that I can act on them right there. So as soon as we made that shift, you started to see a visible difference in how quickly the updates were getting done and then how thoughtful people were about, “Okay, now that I’ve calibrated, what do I need? Because now she’s looking at the performance, she knows whether or not we’ve asked for any help and then if I continue to not make the progress I need to make, there’s going to be an inflection point here somewhere.” So as the people have started to feel that, it’s really made a difference within my organization. And I think if folks can adopt, we’ve been pushing that structure out, and I think we’re going start to see a lot of positive momentum from that as we evolve.

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About Kate Villari

Kate joined AstraZeneca in May 2020, as Director of Strategy, Transformation and Performance. She started her career in aerospace & defense software, at Analytical Graphics, Inc. Kate brings over 15 years of experience in transformational change across industries, organizations, programs and processes to help teams bring strategies to life. She is an active member of the Project Management Institute and serves as a panel reviewer for Program Management Professional® (PgMP) applicants.

About AstraZeneca

Astrazeneca is a global, science-led biopharmaceutical company that focuses on the discovery, development and commercialisation 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.

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