Mixing Up the Disciplines

Recently, I helped to organize a gathering aimed at accelerating innovation in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. The reason for doing that should be apparent. If new medicines can be developed faster, more lives can be saved, and the quality of life can be improved.

Sadly, the opposite is occurring. It costs more money and takes more time to develop new drugs than in the past, and the chances of success are slimmer. Depressed stock market prices for the shares of even the best pharmaceutical companies tell the story.

To make the meetings interesting, we invited high-level scientists and, in addition, business leaders. Our aim was to see if innovative business leaders might prod the scientists into coming up with new ways of going about their chores.

The sessions were fascinating, with some really good ideas for sparking innovation. For example, one underachiever in the group — she had only one Ph.D., in addition to her M.D. degree — said a database should be created of medicines that fail to gain approval. While databases of successes abound, databases of failed research attempts do not exist.

Think about that lapse. Not only can mapping dead ends keep people from going down the wrong innovation paths again, but they can also offer fresh opportunities to study what went wrong.

Databases of failed products or processes could be useful for companies to keep as well. I recall, for example, one company that liked to promote internally how many sales it made each month, the way McDonald’s used to advertise how many hamburgers it had sold. But this company didn’t keep records of the sales it lost. As a result, it couldn’t learn from what it did wrong. Without those records, when it went back to a customer it couldn’t close, it tended to fail again. Studying failures — as long as it’s not punitive — enhances the rate of success.

Another idea promoted at the scientific meeting was to open the innovation process more widely. To show how powerful that can be, one person — a research physician — discussed how crowd--sourcing works. He said that on occasion, when his team of investigators hit the wall, he would put out a broad call on the Web to see if anyone could solve the problem. Of course, there were always a few bizarre ideas, he said. But in almost every case, scientists from other institutions — and in some cases amateurs and even students — solved his unsolvable problem, often within hours. There’s a lot more brainpower outside a firm than inside it, and new Web-based tools allow people to tap into those I.Q. points.

Yet another researcher, this one a physicist who also happened to have a Ph.D. in biology, explained that in his lab, which focused on the brain, he brought in people with diverse backgrounds. He had M.D.s, engineers, biochemists, physicists, geneticists, computer specialists, statisticians and others, all working side by side. The results from doing this — some knowledgeable people said — might just win this young scientist a Nobel Prize.

But mixing up the disciplines, the scientist said, isn’t easy. To do so, you have to speak and understand many different and specialized languages — the language of math, biology, physics and so forth. But if you learn to do that, he said, there’s no end to what can be accomplished. “Problems don’t come packaged in the way universities created their departments and majors,” he noted. “Problems are much messier than that.”

The same can be said for business. The biggest problems that organizations need to solve are not just marketing or product design or engineering or finance. They are all of the above. The question is, How do you learn to speak each of those languages?

When we organized the scientific meeting, we brought business leaders into the mix because we thought their methods would alert scientists about new ways to think about innovation, which they did. But something really interesting occurred. The people from businesses got as much — maybe more — than they gave. The lesson about collaboration is clear. When two or more people try to solve a problem, it doesn’t just add to what they know; it multiplies their knowledge.