Years ago, I persuaded a pharmaceutical client to make three bold moves in one:
(1) To create a New Product Incubator Unit (NPI) in charge of fast assessment/fast fail of very early stage development of medicines, including those offered for in-licencing by outsiders. The client was slow in this crucial filtering phase of the value chain, and applied to this well-known bottleneck in medicines development the same laws and management criteria used in the rest of the company. We created an Incubator from what it was a Slow Incinerator.
(2) To give the NPI complete autonomy with different governance from the mainstream company, for example, allowing different reporting system and different levels of risk management (read: high). In many companies, uniformity and homogeneity of process, systems and reporting, sold as quintessence of, otherwise flawed, good management efficiency, is the only way to go. To carve out spaces (we call it ‘cohabitation of spaces’ in our Organizational Design method) with different laws and rules of the game, seems sometimes to management like a non-affordable nightmare. But the only reasons for the non-affordability, though, are simply of the managerial convenience type. It is indeed more difficult and painful to manage an organization which de facto works as a host of different designs, units, and rules of the game, a diversity of spaces, not a one mansion with all the windows and toilets looking the same.
(3) To put in charge somebody with a technology/engineering background, not medical or pharmaceutical. This bright gentleman, out of ignorance, started asking all sorts of uncomfortable questions about speed, decision making, risk levels, resources and deliverables. The client anticipated a big backlash from ‘the professionals’ but, in fact, we had next to nothing of it, ‘professionals’ largely welcoming the alien and his awkward questions that nobody else had asked before.
This all-in-one bold move worked extraordinarily well on all counts. It got rid of all backlog of assessment of molecules. It attracted bright people wanting to join in. In fact, its permanent headcount was low, but we had a long queue of good brains wanting to join as secondments from other parts of the company. The NPI was ‘the place to be’. It was a fast moving, high risk, work intense, stimulating, high output, thought provoking environment. And did deliver big time.
When later on the company was acquired by a Big-All-Things-Corporation, it took the new owners just a few days to dismantle this alien, avant-garde, magnetic structure. None of the new acquiring executives descending from heaven with a McKinsey cookbook understood this apparent madness, and the most successful experimentation in the long history of the company, going back to the 50s, died unceremoniously.
I made a big mistake at the beginning. I took for granted that success would always be protected, proven innovation would always win, and even Big Consulting Thinking would always acknowledge bold moves. I am slightly less stupid now.
Featured in my latest book: Camino – Leadership Notes on the Road.  Now available in paperback.
Camino is a collection of notes on leadership, initially written as Daily Thoughts, started years ago as a way of talking to myself. Camino, the Spanish for road, or way, reflects on leadership as a praxis that continuously evolves. Nobody is ever a leader. Becoming one is the real quest. But we never reach the destination. Our character is constantly shaped by places and journeys, encounters and experiences. The only real theory of leadership is travelling. The only footprints, our actions. The only test, what we leave behind.
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