Out of Order: Success-story succession
I’m not suggesting we can’t take inspiration from success stories, but I think we need to temper that inspiration with a reminder that success can be measured in several different ways. One such way is longevity, and that is where most of the sexiest success stories tend to fall apart.
In my personal blog on creativity and exploring one's art, Irecently wrote about finding inspiration in the work of others. While my focusthere was on pursuing personal passions, the same holds true for business andindustries, and I think there are certain caveats we need to consider.
About 10 years ago, at a science writers' workshop, I hearda speaker discuss the risks of anecdotal evidence using the following example:
Dolphins are highly intelligent mammals, but also seem tohave an inherent sense of humanity (for lack of a better word), as evidenced bythe number of stories in which dolphins have saved the lives of strandedsailors and fishermen by pushing them toward shore.
Unfortunately, there is a problem with this conclusion,which I will address later in this post.
In learning my craft—and about yours—I have relied onvarious authors to teach me the benefits of specific approaches. One of themost popular ways to describe these benefits is the use of success stories.
Authors like Malcolm Gladwell fill pages with stories ofcompanies and people looking to make new inroads or to separate themselves fromthe pack, particularly in areas of high technology. The business world is fullof mavericks—individuals who stepped to one side and said, "This is insane.There must be a better way to do this."
These stories are inspiring and uplifting. Everybody enjoysan "against all odds" story.
These individuals have made business writers like Gladwell,Clayton Christensen and Philip Kotler very famous and very rich, and fill thepages of publications like DDNEWS ona monthly basis. And every year, the bookshelves expand further with myriad newsuccess-laden tomes.
There are very few books, however, that examine thesesuccess stories years later … and that's probably because success is hard tomaintain. Once the blush goes off the rose, innovation becomes slogging workand that's typically when reality creeps in.
Want proof? Read a business book that is 15, 20 or 25 yearsold and see where the success stories are today.
I read a lot of David Aaker, who in a very "meta" way becamethe branding icon he described in his books. In one book, Aaker went on and onabout the wonders of the Saturn car company: how it was doing thingsdifferently; how it was making every effort to do what the people wanted, notWall Street. And, in the early days, it was very successful at this, and thatwas worth celebrating.
In the years since, however, as the car market changed, sodid Saturn's parent company's plans. The old ways crept in and slowly turnedinnovative Saturn into an old-style company with some now-wistful branding.
So, what does this have to do with the pharmaceutical andbiotechnology industry? Everything.
At a macro level, the pharmaceutical firms were themavericks of the chemical industries of their day, as the biotechs were laterthe mavericks of the pharmaceutical industry. In many respects, the blush hasgone off for the biotech industry as consumers clamor for new approaches tohealth and as the mavericks of that industry go off to create "the next bigthing."
Even within companies, the same cycles occur, as therapeuticcategories or drug families show so much hope as the next great panacea, onlyto see their fortunes fluctuate as more data comes in, or newer, shiniercandidates come out of discovery (see my commentary from the April 2013 issueof DDNEWS, "An aside on side effects").
I'm not suggesting we can't take inspiration from successstories, but I think we need to temper that inspiration with a reminder thatsuccess can be measured in several different ways. One such way is longevity,and that is where most of the sexiest success stories tend to fall apart.
Rather than solely learn the lessons from the front end ofthe success stories, should we not also try to learn the lessons from the sometimes-demoralizingback end? It would be interesting to re-examine the stories from DDNEWS' first year—or any otherpublication's—and see how those stories panned out, as well as lessons learned.(And no, I'm not offering to do it.)
The problem with the dolphin anecdote, for those who haven'talready figured it out?
We will almost never hear about the times the dolphinspushed the stranded seafarers further out to sea rather than to shore, becausethose people probably drowned. Thus, the anecdotal evidence is skewed in favorof success stories.
Willisis the features editor of DDNEWS. He has worked at both endsof the pharmaceutical industry, from basic research to marketing, and haswritten about biomedical science for almost two decades.