Cogent Conversations: Episode 17
Frank McKenna, CPO of Covidence
Covid-19 Mini-Series - Covidence
“The first rule of a startup is focus, and the second rule of a startup is focus. Pick where you can have the most impact, focus your limited resources on that area, make sure everyone is clear about scope and then go as hard as possible.”
– Frank McKenna, Covidence
Covid-19 has impacted us all. It’s changing the way we live, the way we do business and the way we interact with each other. We’ve seen businesses react in a range of different ways, and decided to use this time to share some inspiring stories of digital business who are innovating to survive and thrive. In this short mini-series, we’ll share stories of how businesses are managing this from the coalface, how they’ve changed their product/strategy and how they’ve made it all happen with remote teams, and what they see for the future.
In the second episode of our Covid-19 mini-series, we talk with Covidence, one of Cogent’s long-term clients who build technology which enables better systematic review management. At the start of the pandemic, they were engaged as part of a world-first taskforce to ensure that frontline healthcare professionals could treat COVID-19 with confidence, knowing that their approach is backed by evidence. Covidence has since created the first Covid-19 “living guidelines”, a single source of truth for all healthcare professionals.
We spoke with Frank McKenna, the recently joined Chief Product Officer of Covidence, about the adjustments they have made, and the direct impact of their work on healthcare workers.
To keep up to date with what is happening with Cogent, including when new episodes of this podcast are released, you can subscribe to our blog at cogent.co/blog. Or follow us on Twitter: @cogent_co or Instagram: @cogent_co.
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Meet the hosts
Adam has led digital business, consulted to start-ups and corporates, run co-working spaces, and created his own podcast. Currently, he’s a Product Manager at Cogent, helping organisations verify their venture ideas and enable them to evolve their culture.
Mark’s an angel investor and the CEO of Cogent. Mark’s a sought-after advisor on topics spanning from fundraising to strategic planning and market entry. He has a unique perspective on digital businesses globally, and has play a key role in some of the most successful projects we’ve worked on.
Full Episode Transcript
Adam Murray: This is the Cogent Conversations podcast made by the people at Cogent. Cogent Conversations is about understanding all the things that go into making a digital business thrive, helping create these types of organisations is what we love doing best. We also want you to have the opportunity to take the learnings from the best of what Melbourne has to offer, so you can apply them to your own business. To learn more about Cogent, check us out at cogent.co.
Frank McKenna: The first rule of a startup is focus, and the second rule of a startup is focus. If you pick where you can have the most impact and you focus your limited resources on that area and you go as hard as possible in that, and you make sure that everybody is clear on what is in and what is out of that area.
Mark Wells: Welcome Adam, and welcome Frank from Covidence.
Adam Murray: Thanks Mark. Good to be here.
Frank McKenna: Thanks Mark.
Mark Wells: Frank, we will kick off with just a little bit of scene setting. We are probably 10 weeks into the lockdown now and it has impacted everything we do. And we are really interested in exploring how it has impacted you and your company and also how you see this impacting you in the long term. Just to kind of kick us off, maybe just give us a bit of a take on how has COVID-19 impacted you and the team at Covidence?
Frank McKenna: Yeah. Thanks again, Mark. And it is a pleasure to be on the podcast. Yeah, COVID-19 has really impacted Covidence in two ways especially. First it has impacted like everybody else, we are remote working. So we went from a cool location in our offices in Melbourne to now being spread out and working remotely, doing a lot more video calls, but also we have picked up an extra project or initiative. So our software helps researchers synthesise mountains of studies to find actual insights. We are now involved with the Australian Covid-19 task force, which we are now helping the researchers synthesise all the information around Covid-19 treatment to get it to the frontline practitioners as soon as possible in the form of guidelines. And that is really exciting because that was an area which we were kind of prototyping and piloting in, and now it’s become one of our main focuses.
Adam Murray: Frank, I will jump in here as well. The thing that sort of interests me, many people, but also for you in particular at the moment is when did it go for you and the organisation from this is something that is going to impact the world, or it is emerging in certain parts of the world to, wow, this is going to be different for us now and different for us in a big way. Was there a particular moment where you had that realisation or was it more of a slowly emerging thing?
Frank McKenna: Well, it all kind of happened over a period of a week for me personally and the organisation. Myself and our founder, Julian Elliott were in America visiting some of our university customers and we started on the West Coast, well with Berkeley and Stanford, and we went all the way to the east coast and we’re talking to Yale and Harvard. And when we started over on the West Coast everybody was just talking about the pandemic, we were still shaking hands, there was a little bit of hand sanitiser around, but it wasn’t much. In the space of five days when we got over to the East Coast, nobody was shaking hands, there was sanitiser everywhere and I was looking forward to getting home as soon as possible, because you could see that people were starting to get really scared about it and I was a bit concerned that I could be stuck in America.
As nice as the place is I wanted to be home with my family. By the time we arrived home on the Sunday, we had agreed as an organisation that actually this is getting really, really serious and we were going to start remote working immediately. That decision was more easy for us because our founder, Julian is a professor of infectious diseases at Monash University. He understood the impact of it. And we made the decision almost immediately, we got home, back to Australia, which was actually a few days before the government lockdown. So we were actually doing it before everybody else. And that is because we could see what was happening. So it went to a new space a week from being something which was in the news and kind of a tough conversation point to, this is going to impact me pretty seriously. I could be stuck in another country too, I haven’t seen my teammates and I actually I have not seen them in person for now for over two months.
Adam Murray: Awesome. Maybe I will dive in there with one other question, how did you go about communicating that to the team, given that it was a little bit earlier than say the rest of the country was going into lockdown and how did they respond to that as well?
Frank McKenna: Good question. A lot of our team works remotely. We have a team in America who are actually all remote workers and some in the UK and Lebanon. So we actually have a lot of systems set up to allow for remote working, though we do have a team in Melbourne who work together. When we communicated to the team in Melbourne, we did it in person. So it was a conversation Julian had. I was in Sydney at the time, so I didn’t do it. We did have the conversation going, “As of tomorrow, we are all going to be remote working.” For us in regards to figuring out the systems, it wasn’t as bad in regards to how we would actually share information, how we communicate.
What was a bit more different is that our meetings and ceremonies and all that, it was just a bit more weirder because we initially made the mistake, I think of trying to just… Which is kind of natural, we tried to just replicate the meetings we were having in the way we were having them when we were in person to online and we realised that just wasn’t working. So it took us about a week to adjust it. We went to the next day, we had all the systems in place, but it took us a week to kind of adjust our brains and the way we did it. So by the Friday we were a lot more comfortable and relaxed with the whole thing.
Mark Wells: So Frank, obviously Covidence is in the medical space and in fact, it works within this domain already. How has that affected how you reacted to the pandemic?
Frank McKenna: Very significantly, actually. Well, our target market was academic. What we call static reviews, which is like literature reviews on steroids, where we call them systematic reviews and what they do is they are trying to bring the scientific method into the literature reviews, which means that if you had two different teams doing the same review, they come up with the same results. And our product crushes, helps crush that schedule, say from, an average of two years down into a few months to three or six months. But what we were finding was that we had been asked to say, well, can you do that, where we can now have insights coming in in a week? Because what we need is that we have all this research going on in the world about Covid-19, we want to provide the practitioners in Australia with the most up-to-date insights so they can help treat these patients as this event was unfolding, as new insights were coming through.
So we actually had a prototype in the market. Well, not even in the market, it was just a prototype and it was with the Stroke Foundation of Australia, and they were using it. And they have been using to great effect and it is helping change the lives of over 500 people a year in Australia, which you are saving them from severe disabilities or even death. So this task force said, “Can you do that for COVID-19 in Australia?” Of course, we were still building out a team for our older market. So, do I shift the resources over to this new market? How do we help this pandemic? How do we help it in Australia? And also as a product that she parked off, so I’m thinking, I know there’s an opportunity for this to help people in different places in the world. And then how do I scale it up as a small startup in Australia?
So these are all questions that were coming up. It was both an opportunity and a challenge right at the same time. The outcome though is affecting people’s lives. For me personally also was actually, this is the first time I have been caught up in the world event where I actually, and my team and the organisation can actually help people do something constructive in it as opposed to be a bystander. So it went from being surreal to tangible within the space of say a week.
Adam Murray: I was going to ask, it’s quite a significant shift in many ways for the team. How did you go about getting everyone on the same page with that shift in direction and buying into that, I guess new vision you’re talking about there?
Frank McKenna: Well, what was interesting at the time was… And this is where actually coaching came involved was at the same time that this task force was coming up and they’re talking about us because if you think of a systematic review being six steps from having a question, which is to coming up with a recommendation and a guideline, we make affordable steps in that process. And so we knew that were involved and then we were still working out exactly what was going to be involved in the timelines. And then Mark having to call Julian and say, “You know what, there’s a couple of our people who are coming off jobs. And obviously there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world, we would like to help.” And so instead of having to shift the team, there was a new opportunity provided by Cogent and Mark’s generosity to get really, really skilled and capable people to also look at this at the same time, which is what actually happened.
So for me, it almost came at the same time where one day I was thinking, okay, do I shift the whole team over to this? And how do I do in that team? And how do I onboard to actually this almost like the tech community in Australia, helping each other. And especially that special partnership we have with Cogent to provide to be an opportunity to think, okay, how can I now merge two different teams, one being an external team and the internal team to leverage this? So, it was an interesting time because again, almost the virus itself, these things are happening on a daily basis. The world was changing as I get a little bit more new information, but ultimately how it turned out was, Mark and the team said, okay, we didn’t have any funding for this, by the way.
So, let’s do it on a pro bono basis to help us. And what we decided to do was kind of break down into classic product phases, discoverability and design and construction. And so at the moment, we are still in that discoverability going into design phase. What this though is that, it’s kind of interesting as an organisation which is, how do I start leveraging a community of people and start doing this together? And that has been one of the biggest things, which is, we are all aligned, I now have extra people on board and people are not sure about how it works and how do we all still produce it when time is critical?
Mark Wells: Frank, could I ask about culture and motivation? And so it’s really a general question in regard to Covidence as it was, it’s a not-for-profit and you have come from the corporate world to Covidence and I think I will be interested to understand your drivers around that because you are now working for not-for-profit. But even then the sense of that kind of dent you are making in the world at Covidence even three months ago was somewhat distant like you are not quantifiable and you move from that moment to, oh my God, we are making a big dent in the world right now quite quickly. Do you think that has changed the way you think about the business now and the motivation of the people in the business?
Frank McKenna: Yes, it does. It does actually. There is a cultural shift. I came originally from large organisations. We are talking about retail, banking, then was into startup experiences and then into Covidence, which is just a really small startup, which is a not-for-profit. And I did that because I wanted to use all the skills that I have right now, just to make a real difference. The classic, you get to the point where you know you are successful and you can do stuff, but I would actually now want to start putting it into something where I truly believe in what is happening to it. I could get the concept of what happened in Covidence. I could see how it was a good time to be helping, but as you mentioned for me when I first arrived, the outcome was two years.
So, you help somebody today and in two years time, they produce a report. And now all of a sudden these guidelines are coming out on a weekly basis. And that just brought the immediacy of how important what do is. How much of an impact you could have personally on this one, unless as you said, an academic point of view, but more about a tangible.
In regards to culture, one great thing about working for a non-for-profit that I hadn’t… I mean, when I worked in organisations, I had great people all the time and there’s a lot of very passionate people about what they do. Well, it was very rare in a large organisation, I’d have 100% of everybody I worked for who are 100% believed in the mission and wants it to succeed and you could genuinely trust that their agenda was the company’s agenda, and that was to help people. And that’s a great feeling because, you know that is a great aspect. And the challenge as a leader and the opportunity as a leader is to channel that passion and to make sure that we are all focusing in the right areas and focus going forward, especially in times of great change. And the way you do that is to keep reminding people of the North Star, why are you doing this? How are you helping it? And how are you and what you do as an organisation, helping other people?
And you keep that North star, it helps align everybody else. And in times of great change, when you have another team coming in and we are doing it, the idea is ultimately our North Star is we want to make sure that the people getting the insights to make decisions are getting the best insights possible and we helped to facilitate those people, call them researchers, call them reviewers to provide data the best way possible. That’s our mission, help them, support them. And that has really helped in the culture.
The other thing that we found which anybody who has worked in remote now for a while will realise it is a bad communication. It is bad not only having this North Star, but because you don’t have that informal communication that you don’t see each other, it’s more of an explicit thing. How do you keep that going when you only got 24 hours in the day? How do you manage that? And that as a non-for-profit, I didn’t see any difference with that on the actual profit for profit. It’s about that communication. So motivating people was easy, the North Star was easier to explain and then the same way I was doing it, but having everybody communicate each other so we are all aligned to getting it, I think the challenges are still the same universal ones.
Adam Murray: I’m curious Frank as well about how… So you have sort of had to compress this process that you have got to make it even more efficient, I suppose, and even more effective in what it produces and during the discovery process for that at the moment, I’m wondering about how that might have challenged some of the assumptions about the way you have thought about the software and the product as well, and what the lasting impacts might be there. Has there been some realisations about, oh, we can be doing this totally differently?
Frank McKenna: Yes. So the first rule of a startup is focus, and the second rule of a startup is focus. You pick where you can have the most impact and you focus your limited resources on that area, and you go as hard as possible in that. And you make sure that everybody is clear on what is in and what is out of that area. When you have a separate linked but separate, market come up too and once you develop that one and start talking about features of which are kind of ideas for one market, which are now actually necessities in another. Obviously, you’re doing a crash course in deep diving into this one in real time. And it’s exciting because it’s like, “Oh my God, this is so much doing,” but that synthesis of going, “Oh, actually, now that I have actually deep dived into this and we have talked to people about it…” And then you talk to other people, you start seeing cross pollination of ideas.
So some of the assumptions I had walked in with and had kind of been slowly evolving, suddenly just sped up terrible because I had a new perspective on the same thing. And one of those, for example is, one of the key aspects about systematic reviews is it’s done in teams. And the reason why it’s done in teams of research, it’s not just one researcher trying to synthesise all these… We are talking about 10 to 15,000 documents from all around the world on a particular topic, synthesising it to do it in teams. And the reason why to do it in teams is you want to take out the bias. So you have two people assess the same document and if they come up to the same conclusion, you work on the theory that, that’s an objective conclusion, as opposed to a bring in your own personal bias with the thing.
And we kind of work on one… And each DT teams work on one question at a time. It’s just how it works. With the guidelines, you’re talking about 30 to 80 questions at a time, and these teams can be anywhere from three to 30. So all of a sudden, teams are bigger, the scale is bigger and the coordination is a lot more challenging. So we had to really think about collaboration a lot more and how we collaborate on linked and independent and dependent projects. And that deep thinking has actually really helped us in the original project, in the original product and target area. But that was going to evolve over time. It has now evolved over three weeks, because it had to. But luckily enough, I mean, again, I’m not saying this because I’m talking on a coaching podcast, genuinely, I would say this on any podcast, the coach and team that we had and on-boarded are excellent at this.
They have deep dived into this and we have had a great synergy. I have had a great synergy with them to explore this area and really uncover about it, and that really has sped up. And I think that will come out of this a year ahead of our roadmap in the thinking that we were expecting to, because we will explore the market… We went exploring, we’d have done it, or else we would have explored concepts in real time that I wasn’t explained to for a while. So I’m hoping that we’ll be able to come out of this stronger and better in regards to roadmap wise, if nothing else it’s been exciting.
Mark Wells: Frank, do you think the process Covidence has originated to accelerate information dispersion from years to months, now you have been forced to innovate from months to weeks. Do you think that is going to have… I mean, obviously this is an academic process, it’s still a rigorous academic process-
Frank McKenna: Yeah.
Mark Wells: … Is that going to have long lasting effects on your broader markets and all the segments you operate in, do you think?
Frank McKenna: I think so. Because what we have done at the moment this… So the years to months, we were doing on scale or we’re trying to do it on scale and it was starting to work and we’re getting a lot of data points back into how to fine tune it. This months to weeks, we only really had two data points. There was two trials we were running on this one and it wasn’t… We have a small organisation with very few resources so it was kind of getting by, but ultimately there’s no reason why someone needs to spend two years doing something like this. There is no reason why they can’t get it done in a month or two months with the right tools and augmenting and complementing the decision making the humans have to make and synthesising it. I think ultimately there’s no reason why that the… Because research is growing exponentially, there’s thousands and thousands and thousands and millions of documents coming in every year. And how do we all synthesise that?
So I don’t see the reason why is that… Instead of updating even research to not just medical, but engineering and social and legal, that they can’t be doing that in a matter of weeks as well. That’s a goal. And I think what this has shown me is that it is possible. That is truly possible given the right focus. I think most people would come up with the same conclusion is when they are put into a period of deep stress and I have to come over, there you go, “Actually, we managed to do it.” I probably wouldn’t have done it that way if I had a choice, but the insight has been invaluable. As I said before, it has helped clarify our roadmap going for a while, for the next year, but also I think that this is applicable where I think, a genuine to our mission is, it helps solidify in my mind anyway, that our mission of changing the way people create and use knowledge is completely achievable and we can make significant differences.
And again, we are not just doing it on our own, there is other partner organisations who are also helping us on this journey, but this community, I think there will be huge impact we can make. And I think it’s now, sooner than later.
Adam Murray: Frank, we are almost out of time and we really appreciate your time. I have just got one more question for you. And it’s really, I guess, taking, I guess a little bit more of a broader context than the specific work that you are working on, but it’s just a thing that you have found surprisingly difficult in this time, perhaps for you or the organisation, and also a thing that you found surprisingly good and surprisingly beneficial from this time.
Frank McKenna: I think there’s two things I want to mention. One is about more general and one more specific. So the one more general is the remote working. I have found that harder and better than I was expecting it. I’m kind of used to in my job having to take deep periods of time where we have to do deep thinking. There’s a lot of information and I need to synthesise it, so I need to kind of withdraw a little bit, synthesise it and then come back at it again. It was interesting. And so therefore asymmetrical communication, I’m kind of used to, even when I’m leading teams, the teams I lead tend to work the same way. It was interesting to watch how many others who are not used to that because their jobs involve more contact with people, were really struggling with this. And it surprised me how quickly it was, but it also was positive in how as an organisation we came together to help those people through the journey of remote working because it is really difficult.
And things like checking in regularly, we have a 15 minute call every morning where there is no agenda. Literally people just get on every morning, say hello to everybody in the morning from all over the world, have a bit of a chat and then 15 minutes later, we all go, okay, see what your rest of your day and then we all go off. And those little things, and we go ahead and have the virtual coffee chats where we all have a cup of coffee and we just have a chat to each other for 15 minutes. They are all kind of really important. And I was kind of surprised because for the first week we weren’t doing it. And then the first week how people were really responding, some people were really struggling and now I think everybody’s going to get used to it. Although personally, I’m starting to get a little bit of cabin fever. I could really do getting out of my neighbourhood for a little while.
The second one is more specific to our particular area, which was when a national crisis comes about, everybody wants to help. And the hardest thing I found was saying no to a lot of people who are genuine. I mean, it was great because we had a need in regards to when Cogent came on board and offered their services, okay great, I know how that fits in, but we had a lot of other people come and going, “I really want to help. I’m struggling here, I want to do something,” almost like the other people who have been struggling didn’t know what to do. These are people who had free time going, “I want to do something.” And for me it was really hard going, “Actually, I can’t use you… Your skills, but I can’t use you.” Or saying yes, if I brought you on, we will probably have too many people coming on board at the same time and it’s just going to be counter productive and almost having to slow up. To speed up, that was hard because you have a national pandemic going on.
You want to do something about it, you want to be, “Yes, everybody come on board and everybody just do something.” And you think about it for five minutes and going, “Actually, no. We are going to take you, you, you and you and the rest, I’m sorry. Thank you very much for your time, but…” So that was actually really hard because I could actually see people going like, “Ah,” really frustrated.
Adam Murray: Awesome Frank, thank you so much for your time. It was great to get those insights. Any final words from you, Mark or you Frank?
Mark Wells: I would just say thank you for your time, Frank and thank you for your kind words.
Frank McKenna: Thank you Mark and Adam for your time, it has been good to chat about it. I haven’t really reflected on this period, halfway through the period, so it has been kind of interesting to go back over it. And also those kinds of words were very sincerely meant because we would not been able to deliver what we have been able to deliver so far if it hadn’t been for what Cogent have done for us. So, I was very happy on that part just to reflect back, honestly what I saw and thought. Again, this is difficult time because we have not got out of it yet. So it’s going to be interesting to see what the next task will be, because I think almost I’m starting to feel some people are getting complacent about it now. So, we have been in lockdown for so long and people coming and going, “almost over right now.” And I don’t think it is. So it would be interesting to see how the next three months go as of this first three months will be.
Adam Murray: Awesome. Well, perhaps we can check in again at some point, Frank. Thank you.
Mark Wells: Thanks Frank.
Frank McKenna: Thank you very much.
Adam Murray: To help us get the word out there about all the great digital businesses in Melbourne, you can help by sharing an episode you love with a friend or by writing and reviewing this podcast through your favourite platform. And finally, if you want to tell us about how your business is thriving, or you know of another digital business that is having an amazing positive impact, best way to do that is through emailing us through email@example.com. I am Adam Murray and I look forward to hearing your story.