Tom Macfarlane

Management Consultant

  • Innovation
  • Life Sciences

11 Nov, 2020

Accelerating Innovation In Life Sciences

I recently had the pleasure of chairing a virtual panel discussion on Accelerating Innovation in the Life Sciences - convened by BDI and featuring a panel comprising AbbVie’s Derek Debe, Fortinet’s Troy Ament, EMD Serono’s Rajesh Ramaswamy and WWT’s Justin Collier. In case you missed it, you can watch it here and below I share my thoughts on the subject.

We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!

Chaucer has run dozens of engagements in which the end goal was to create a more fertile ground for innovation. There are varied techniques for accomplishing this feat, which must be selected and tailored to individual clients. What we have not previously sought to do, but that which recent circumstances have forced upon us, is to introduce uncertainty into an organisation. Uncertainty, as we all know, is bad for business. Stock market variability increases in the run-up to elections; CEOs lament the Brexit negotiations for frustrating effective planning; and some economists, such as Nobel prize-winner, Herb Simon, have asserted that the very purpose of organisations is to eliminate uncertainty.

The silicon transistor, upon which these organisations depend so completely, does not do uncertainty at all. Machines enforce a rigid determination of 1 or 0, yes or no, but this is certainly not how humans think. Indeed, in some areas, the inherent inflexibility of computers has necessitated the development and implementation of artificial doubt.

‘Fuzzy logic’, which can employ imprecise rules, groupings and dependencies, is an established and growing area of mathematics. It is probably employed in the virus detection software running on your computer right now; so too the fraud-alerts that you receive from your bank; and so too many concepts within the booming field of artificial intelligence.

In fact, fuzzy logic is employed by many areas of science and engineering, but it has hitherto failed to permeate the managerial decisions of global enterprises, as many researchers once thought it might.

The life sciences are a case in point. Pharmaceutical R&D must whittle down thousands of candidate molecules to a single drug, designed to treat a specific condition and at a specific dose. This process requires many years and may deviate in many different directions en route. Essentially, clinical development programmes expect uncertainty and are composed with its navigation in mind.

On the other hand, corporate strategy and business planning are far less comfortable with linguistic vagueness, subjectivity and degrees of truth. Rather, we tend to make rigid assumptions about the external environment, and rigid assertions about our direction within it. There is little room for fuzziness.

And yet, Covid19 has shown that great uncertainty does exist, even if we fail to acknowledge it. For anyone that cared to look, an (influenza) pandemic was a knowable, well-quantified and indeed expected risk; it’s just that it did not feature on most companies' radars.

We are now being forced to make plans and decisions with an implicit acknowledgement of their precariousness. Without doubt, this can be a bad thing, especially for smaller companies and for employees (those who are still defending zero-hours contracts are seldom those living on them), but some businesses are tentatively finding some positives.

To innovate, a company must be prepared to accept risk and invest in the uncertain. This doesn’t just apply to whether a new product will be a success, but to whether a regulator will allow a change in practice; whether a left-field job candidate will work out; or whether an infrastructure investment will generate return. The myriad examples of covid19-accelerated innovation - from homeworking, to remote medical consultations, to supply-chain flexibility – were all previously been resisted due to the uncertainty of their success.

We can, and should, learn to balance upon shifting sands; both for the protection that this stance may afford, and for the advances it may yield.

Tom Macfarlane

Management Consultant

Tom Macfarlane is a commercially-minded strategy/transformation professional and an Associate Partner at Chaucer Group. With a background in neuroscience and pharmaceuticals, he retains a specialist interest in the life sciences, but has served in leadership roles across industry verticals and in both the corporate and public sectors.

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