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Some thoughts about advisory boards

Are you involved in the organisation or conduction of advisory boards? If so, from time to time you may wonder whether the results are proportionate to the money and time invested. Here are some thoughts about common sticking points which may prevent getting good value from advisory boards and options to avoid them:

The participants have not or not sufficiently provided new insights.
This happens most likely if there is something like an eternal advisory board, with “old boys” (most advisory boards I attend still have just one “token female” among the experts) meeting at a regular schedule. In other cases, there may be an unspoken rule to only contact “friends” of the sponsor for the meeting. In both cases, the participants often have long standing relationships with the sponsor of the advisory board, which increases their tendency to think and act as they are supposed to by their host. Such a group might not interact dynamically because over time each member might have found and occupied his or her role – most often with one or two alpha dogs and the rest of the board more or less following them.

If there are “political” or logistic reasons to have a fixed advisory board, it is important to provide new input to stimulate discussion. Consider inviting external speakers with a different expertise, e.g. an expert in pharmacoeconomy for a medical advisory board. This will challenge and reward the board members with information that is not readily available to them and open their minds to take a fresh view on issues they have been milling around. Also, do not forget the excellent expertise in your company on topics relevant for the advisors, e.g. in product development, pharmacology or health politics. If you have not considered this yet, you will be astonished how relevant such information is for the experts. However, make sure that your colleague is open when answering questions and does not palpably hold back information when asked about details.

The participants have not or not sufficiently discussed the topics on the agenda.
If the schedule leaves too much room for the participants to set their own priorities, they might end up in fundamental scientific discussions or anecdotes from the last congress. Especially for high level key opinion leaders, advisory boards are rare occasions to meet in a relaxed atmosphere so they might be inclined to chat away their time a little.
Don’t be shy to pose all of your questions straightforward to the board. Your experts will more likely appreciate being steered through than feel bossed around. However, keep in mind to present your questions in a way they can answer them. For example, if you have an issue with market access, presenting your ideas on how to approach the problem might yield more useful information than asking open questions.

Consider having somebody record the experts’ statements immediately on slides so everybody can see and discuss them. Visual feedback of their statements nudges the experts towards a consensus, or at least a majority view may become visible. For example, you will get a clearer picture whether all board members really approve a statement made by an alpha dog.

The results of the advisory board are not documented in a way to facilitate further use.
More often than not all representatives of the sponsor take notes at an advisory board and then someone is picked out to write up the minutes. When these are distributed, it turns out that there are substantial discrepancies in what was understood of the expert statements. Therefore, the discussions should always be audio-recorded.
Ask the experts if it is okay for them to tape the discussion. If you point out that you intend to make sure none of their valuable advice is lost and the tape will be erased after finishing the protocol, they very likely will agree. Using tapes to rehearse parts of discussions at advisory boards is an astonishing experience. For example, statements you thought were quite clear sound far less convincing when you listen to the original wording because you and your colleagues heard what you wanted to hear.

You may also consider asking board members in advance if they are willing to answer questions that arise from preparing the protocol afterwards. This may prevent you from ending up with too many new questions after the meeting. It can also help to figure out if some experts did not voice their dissent sufficiently at the meeting.

Taken together, you needn’t be shy to make sure that you get value for money from your experts. With a good balance between your demands and creative freedom for the experts you will ensure relevant outcomes of your advisory board.

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