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(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Missing Link in Innovative Research

3. The development of critical skills within the middle-management group. To lead scientists, managers must have personal scientific credibility. However, this is not enough. Those who rise to the challenge of being strong scientific leaders differentiate themselves in several key ways. For example, they define a compelling destination. When Thomas Hughes, now president and CEO of Zafgen Inc., launched early work on an ultimately successful Type 2 diabetes drug at Novartis AG, he knew it was a challenging project that would require resilience, creativity, and support from scientists throughout the organization. To maintain commitment and tap into the scientists’ commitment, he and his team created a manifesto for the proposed drug that set forth its target research profile and described its potential clinical benefits for patients. The vision captured in this manifesto enabled bench scientists to link their daily work directly to the desired outcome and helped them keep the goal in mind as they considered how to work around the obstacles that inevitably appeared. Launched in 2007, Galvus has been approved in 68 countries.

Strong scientific leaders connect beyond boundaries. They recognize that functional silos, highly specialized scientific knowledge, and uneven communication skills create barriers to the critical networking interactions that are at the heart of innovation. “Creativity is simply the art of putting two well-understood ideas together in a new way,” says Phillip Sharp, cofounder of Biogen Idec Inc. and co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, “and making connections through networks is central to innovation.” For that reason, the best scientific leaders facilitate connections for their teams and serve as role models for strong formal and informal networks across functional disciplines, franchises, and organizations.

They also apply multiple lenses to problem solving. Any research organization must use a single framework to organize people and activities and to align resource deployment, decision making, and information sharing. For example, most pharmaceutical R&D organizations divide themselves into therapeutic or disease area teams and functional departments. But any organizational structure creates blind spots and biases, and decision making by therapeutic area groups will frequently miss opportunities to apply insights from other therapeutic areas. The tendency of many companies to set research targets within each therapeutic area may also stifle creativity and insight by constraining the researchers’ “field of vision” and establishing incentives to advocate for a specific therapeutic area rather than for breakthrough science.

The best scientific leaders not only systematically apply multiple lenses to problem solving and prioritizing, but also make sure their teams appreciate the different perspectives. “As a leader, you have to understand what is happening in politics, technology, and science, in order to make good decisions,” says Sharp. These leaders see beyond the inherent limitations of their structure to ensure that biologically relevant findings are not discounted due to poor fit with the organizational structure of the department.

As organizational size and complexity grow, leaders can lose visibility into both key research activities and their people. As a result, they not only fail to gather multiple perspectives on projects but also miss the opportunity to get to know their staff. In contrast, successful scientific leaders use informal channels to engage people, understand their different strengths, and learn what motivates them. These leaders identify the “creative geniuses” — scientists who need more time to pursue nonlinear research — and help them interact with other scientists to fertilize work across the organization.

When Michael Varney arrived at Genentech Inc. as its new senior vice president of small molecule drug discovery in June 2005, he recognized the challenge of sustaining the company’s enviable reputation in drug development. To succeed, Varney not only relied on his academic credentials and successful track record but also created personal connections with his teams by organizing informal gatherings, conducted both at work and at his home, to gain deeper insight into their efforts and to foster better collective judgment. “As a leader, you can set the organizational and strategic framework,” he says, “but you need to keep the human connection with your people to get to know them and make sure they remember you are a real human being.”

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