Be stubborn on vision and flexible on details
– Jeff Bezos
Those words, which I heard recently, have stuck in my head (or rather in Evernote, as I typed them on my iPhone furiously as I heard them).
Over the years, I have seen too many in the life science industry, even pharma in recent years, lurch around, almost trying to figure out what they need to be doing as companies as they go along. That’s why so many fail. Let’s say you are running a small biotech or bioinformatics shop. You need to be sure what your vision is, identify the actionable milestones that you need to achieve and then figure out what you need to do to hit each milestone. It’s not just for a company. If you’re a product manager, think about your product line, and so on. The times I have been successful were times where I had a clear vision about where I wanted to be, and then figured out a path (stress on “a path”) to get there. When you’re too reactive, it just doesn’t work.
Having worked at a couple of Biotechs I know some of the pitfalls. Vision is great and actionable milestones are a must but in biology both are usually based on extremely limited knowledge of very complex information.
Enbrel is a great example. Originally developed to fight septic shock, it passed every milestone but one. It failed in clinical trials, to have an ameliorative effect. But, rather than toss it away, Immunex was able to rework it into a premier rheumatoid arthritis drug. Flexible on the details.
Part of the real problem is that many businesses feel that the details always have to be right, that the company will only succeed if it always succeeds on the details. While this might be true, it is also impossible, especially in something as complex as biology.
Effective companies take the approach Immunex did. We wanted to kill projects as quickly as possible, or at least put them on the back burner. Three times a year, all the projects were reviewed by scientific management with possible participation by all the members of Discovery Research, whether they had a Ph.D. or not. Based on the manpower available and the limited resources we had projects were usually given a priority from say 1 to 3.
Ones were hot and every one wanted to work on them. Twos could go either way and were also wroth working on. Threes were back burner. The key was to have limited resources along with a lot of possible projects. There was always something important to work on if your project moved to 3. But, with judicious use of time and resources, a back burner project could be resurrected.
This is because it was still possible to work on a back burner project. One just had to be able to justify the time. Or propose a bake-off to finally demonstrate which approach would be best. Actually, many important projects came out of some of the skunkworks projects. But a lot of projects died a quick merciful death by this high level of vetting.
Flexible means working for a successful failure. That can be the best win of all.