7 Steps to Finding the CRO with the Right Cultural Fit


Written by Kieran Canisius

Kieran brings together vendors, investors, growth, clinical and subject matter experts at the forefront of their life science specialties to energetically support clients in overcoming their challenges and find new strategies for success.

June 1, 2021

Someone once said, “The course of true clinical-trial success never did run smooth” – or something like that. Maybe it was love…but we do love when a clinical trial goes well. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. Anyone who’s ever worked on a clinical trial knows that it’s just that: a trial. And there are a lot of bumps and potholes on the road to success. It’s a road that goes a lot more smoothly when you have the right partner helping you navigate.

All The Considerations for Finding a CRO Partner

When finding a CRO partner, there are a lot of things to consider. Their capabilities and experience spring immediately to mind. Can they deliver? Are their costs competitive? These are all important questions, but they don’t cover all the possible sources of conflict.

The Impact Of Cultural Fit

What sponsors often forget to think about (or don’t consider important) when selecting a CRO is their cultural fit. No matter how well considered all that stuff above is, sooner or later conflict will arise – it’s inevitable in any relationship, whether we’re talking about colleagues, spouses or even our pets. In a clinical trial, however, such conflicts can literally be a matter of life or death, if they prevent us from successfully and conscientiously conducting a trial. If a partner’s philosophy and way of working do not align with our own, no matter how impressive their experience and capabilities, that conflict will be more difficult to resolve. Sure, professional relationship fixers like Seuss+ can help you save the sinking ship, but it’s always better to find the most well-suited partner in the first place.

Finding A Well-Suited Partner

This is clearly easier said than done. Just like dating, when two partners are first getting to know each other, both sides have a tendency to “put on a show,” presenting what they think the other side wants to see. Seeking to be liked rather than focusing on being accepted for who they are. And the initial interactions tend to remain superficial, with each side showing off their achievements and accolades without really revealing what makes their people and their company tick. We’ve seen this happen over and over again when finding CROs – which is why we’ve formed some ideas on how to avoid these getting-to-know-you pitfalls, both before and at the signing meeting. We’ve got your guide to assessing cultural fit right here, a step-by-step instruction manual on finding the right match.

Assessing Cultural Fit, Step By Step

1. Know Your Own Culture

The journey of discovery always begins at home. You can’t determine whether another company is a good fit until you figure out what it is they should fit into. Be honest: it’s easy to say that your company is awesome, but harder to admit that it’s a bit chaotic or demanding or has a tendency to micro-manage. But knowing these things about ourselves is crucial to making any future relationship work.

2. Figure Out What You Need Help With

While knowing your strengths – your USPs (unique selling points) – knowing your weaknesses is equally important. Especially as you are looking for a partner.

Remember: you’re not looking for a copy of your company culture. You’re looking for one that complements you’re own. That can often mean a partner whose strengths fill in your weak spots and leave you free to exercise your own strengths. If you and your selected supplier are too much alike, it’s likely that you’ll have identical blind spots, leaving your clinical trial and your relationship in a vulnerable position.

3. Define What Culture Means To You

Is it the model of operations? Is it the philosophy of the people? Both? Before you can find what you want, you need to figure out what the defining factors are that create the culture you’re looking for.

For example, if one of the things you feel you need in your partner’s culture is adaptability to changing realities and the consequences involved, you need to look for a CRO that also looks to the people who operate the company on the ground floor for suggestions, not just engaging in top-down information gathering and decision making.

In order to adapt, the need to adapt must first be a recognized and accepted core value. Searching for a CRO that is “adaptable” may seem like a fuzzy idea, but there are key organizational behaviors and infrastructure setups that you can identify to let you know you’ve found the right one.

4. Be Clear About What You Are Looking For

Once you know what you want, make sure you communicate that clearly. Do you need someone with flexibility? Expertise in a certain area? Say so to anyone you discuss the partnership with. Clarify (many times and in many formats) what the selection criteria are, so that the CROs can explain their expertise in your required area.

5. Ask About Their Culture

It may seem obvious, but these questions about culture seem to too often get skipped during the CRO selection process (RFI, RFP, bid defense, etc.). Include questions about company culture during the various selection steps. In our experience, to get the most honest answers and be able to interpret them correctly, these are questions best posed face to face. Which leads us to…

6. Meet Any Potential Partners Face-To-Face

Just as in dating, you’ll never know if the spark that leads to successful long-term partnerships is really there until you meet in person (or at the very, very least over Skype, MS Teams or Zoom). One of our clients tells us that it gives him an intangible sense of where the individuals and the team are coming from, a peek in the proverbial kitchen.

7. Imagine The Worst And Challenge Yourself To Critically Decide If Your Partnership Could Survive

You don’t need to be best friends, but you really should at least like your new partner. And we don’t mean just like them on paper – their achievements, the things you think should be important. We’re urging you to go with your gut on this one. When the tough times come (and they always do), will you be glad that this is the team you’ll be working through them with? Deep down, do you trust them?

In short: you’re going to need an honest cultural click to get through the rough patches. Of course, all that other stuff – the credentials and previous experiences – are critical… Just remember that they’re not the whole story when finding a CRO.

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