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President ObamaImage by Violentz via Flickr

"You can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach

You have to let them show you what to do differently next time."

President Obama, Back to School Event, Sept 8th, 2009

While I normally prefer to stay out of politics, especially on a business blog, reading the speech that the President gave to American schoolchildren had a number of interesting concepts in it.  You can read the full transcript here.

The above quote really resonated with me.  Why?  Because in business, and in Pharma also, we often see an excessive focus on tactics over strategy.  Part of this is because it's easier to churn out stuff and think you're getting things done, but partly it is also a big insecurity and fear of putting one's big picture plans out there for all to scrutinise and provide constructive feedback. 

Fear of failure therefore often defines business and Pharma is sometimes no different in this regard.  Coming up with robust business plans for the future takes time, energy, effort and a lot of consensus.  Smart companies and teams focus on it for several months of the year with a willingness to be flexible and creative about their

Seth Godin summarised it very well though:

"In my experience, people get obsessed about tactical detail before they embrace a strategy… and as a result, when a tactic fails, they begin to question the strategy that they never really embraced in the first place."

Godin is right in that it is all about defining results, not actions.  As an old sales manager used to say to me more succinctly when we started writing our annual sales plans:

"Ok guys, it's time to put our balls on the line again."

Guess what happened though? 

The teams who paid lip service to strategy over tactics were always at the bottom of the league compared to those who took time out to get it right, truly debate the issues and then outline what the viable outcomes were going to be.  Often, we learned more from our past mistakes, refining and honing things, so that next time things were even better.  That's how you measure and monitor progress. 

It's ok to make mistakes and learn the important lessons, but it would be daft to repeat them. The Japanese call this process of continuous learning, Kaizen.  It's also one of my favourite words in the business lexicon.

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2 Responses to “How failure can lead to improvement in Pharma”

  1. mariancutler

    Would seem there’s the beginnings of common agreement that business in general, and pharma specifically, needs to step up their game playing and stop overweighting tactics at the expense of strategy. But, from what I’ve seen lately there’s another underlying current impacting both tactic and strategy development…something you touched on briefly: the ability to “debate the issues and then outline what the viable outcomes were going to be.” I fear there’s either a numbing niceness taking over the workplace or, worse, a general inability to debate issues in a constructive and productive manner. The two might not be mutually exclusive.
    As we climb the corporate ladder we’re subjected to a myriad of training courses–ranging form how to handle a PETA protest to sexual harassment in the workplace to presentation training and so on. Why is there not greater focus on development business and strategic plans?
    Everyone loves being part of brainstorming the kernels for such programs, yet few are talented enough to participate let alone facilitate the crucial meetings after “all ideas are good ideas”. It’s those meetings where “your balls are put on the line”, to steal a phrase, is the ruling mandate.
    The numbing niceness mentioned early is what stops involved, committed and passionate coworkers from openly debating, debunking and dismissing ideas without real value. When did a debate become personal? Why are some afraid to disagree because of possible retribution? It’s time we revive the robust concept of “healthy debate”. You know, the types of grown up conversations where we all have skin in the game and yet never lose sight of being on the same team?

  2. MaverickNY

    Hi Marian, thank you for your thoughtful comment and observations.
    You’ve touched on some interesting points, many of which quite surprised me when I came to the US from Europe, where we are more used to the Socratic method and robust debate.
    The bland, almost anodyne, niceness that exists in meetings is often driven by management because they often (not always, thankfully!) just want lip service rather than debate. By that, I mean they just want their ideas and plans agreed but not challenged in any way.
    There are pockets of robust debate though, for example, in EU companies with an office in the US and large number of EU employees. Debates are much more fun and often heated, but as you say, it’s all about the ideas and concepts, not the people. It’s not personal at all, it’s all about may the best ideas win and float to the top.
    I have seen religious and political views float into management meetings here in the US, with people taking very positional bargaining sides, rather than listening and exploring ideas for the greater good. That can be unnerving to say the least.
    Still, if management just want stooges, eventually creativity and innovation die and the best people leave and go elsewhere to more productive and conducive environments.

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