Between 2017 and 2018 we were commissioned to undertake a project in a small, entrepreneurial biotech company running concurrent programmes to develop treatments for a rare genetic muscular disease and to develop a novel antibiotic for the treatment of chronic diarrhoea associated with recurrent bacterial infection.

In 2009 the company had restructured and by the end of 2016 delivered clinical success in two programmes. A licensing deal brought investment to pursue their R&D programme and the board endorsed a significant phase shift from a research-based to late-stage development programme without big pharma support.
However, several problems remained unresolved:

  • The executive team, whilst highly competent, needed to manage two concurrent clinical programmes

  • The COO confirmed the need for greater strategic clarity throughout the organisation

  • Enabling the R&D teams to act autonomously would require changes to the governance and operating model

  • Shifting from Phase 2 to Phase 3 development would result in significant growth and increasingly complex challenges


We designed and facilitated the introduction of an ‘intent-based’ operating model and coached delivery teams and leaders to operate and coordinate activities effectively with minimal central control. We also helped the company to weight its classic matrix organisational structure in favour of the project delivery teams.

The shift required everyone in the company to fully understand the company’s intent and use it as the context for their actions. Operational decision-making was devolved to the lowest possible level of management, and simplified governance structures gave project delivery teams accountability for results and control over resources.

To support the new operating model we also created a set of company values which described the way the company wanted to think and behave. We achieved this with an all-volunteer team and developed a facilitator package so that managers could take responsibility for delivering learning sessions in their teams.

  • The redesigned operating and governance model supported accountability and empowerment

  • Everyone in the company understood what success looked like

  • Decision-making was delegated to the key project teams

  • Everyone in the company was aligned around common values and behaviours


In mid-2018 there was a sudden and unexpected upset. One of the clinical trials announced negative results that meant abandoning the project. However, the intent-based operating model enabled the company to re-orient at speed and pivot towards delivering a new set of novel antibiotics for unmet clinical needs.

The biggest effect of adopting leading through intent was that senior leaders had genuine clarity about the outcomes they wanted. The board and executive team were willing to let people figure out what they needed to do to deliver and trusted them to do so. A series of benefits were observed. They can be summarized as:

  • Increased speed of decision-making because of delegation to the most appropriate level with a single point of accountability for programme delivery
  • Every member of the team was aligned and empowered to make decisions within their own remit
  • Productivity improvements resulted from greater clarity about what success looked like.
  • Successful delivery of key goals included on-time reporting of clinical trial study data to support effective decision-making, securing finance for the Phase 3 clinical programme and delivery of a comprehensive antibiotic research strategy.

As straightforward as it may seem to implement procedural changes to the way that strategy is developed, formulated, translated, and executed, the key challenges were cultural and behavioural. The cultural phenotype of an organisation can be hard to change but has a critical impact on implementation and the result. In this case, the client actively recruited, developed, and supported people at every level to think and act like leaders. The leading through intent programme also benefitted from clear support from company senior management, including the CEO and the Board. This resulted in:

  • A higher level of creative problem-solving at lower levels of the organisation.
  • Measurable improvements in alignment to company goals.
  • People understanding their role in delivering the company’s strategic goals and feeling personally responsible for the outcome.
  • Teams and individuals had greater satisfaction with the degrees of freedom they had and were confident they would be supported if they took decisions.
  • “Our intent-based operating model focused on the patient and empowered our project delivery teams which inspired folks to collaborate, making a difference in developing treatments”

  • “When the situation changed, the whole company was able to accept the DMD ‘mission’ was at an end having failed to deliver its expected outcomes and we quickly adapted to the company’s new intent” 

  • “Our lead clinical programme was an exemplar of leading through intent. Our autonomy ensured we delivered the Phase 2 programme on time and with the high-quality dataset needed to make the disappointing but necessary decision to terminate the research programme”


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