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Out of Order: Success-story succession
July 2013
by Randall Willis  |  Email the author

In my personal blog on creativity and exploring one's art, I recently wrote about finding inspiration in the work of others. While my focus there was on pursuing personal passions, the same holds true for business and industries, and I think there are certain caveats we need to consider.  
About 10 years ago, at a science writers' workshop, I heard a speaker discuss the risks of anecdotal evidence using the following example:
Dolphins are highly intelligent mammals, but also seem to have an inherent sense of humanity (for lack of a better word), as evidenced by the number of stories in which dolphins have saved the lives of stranded sailors 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 on various authors to teach me the benefits of specific approaches. One of the most popular ways to describe these benefits is the use of success stories.
Authors like Malcolm Gladwell fill pages with stories of companies and people looking to make new inroads or to separate themselves from the pack, particularly in areas of high technology. The business world is full of 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 enjoys an "against all odds" story.
These individuals have made business writers like Gladwell, Clayton Christensen and Philip Kotler very famous and very rich, and fill the pages of publications like DDNEWS on a monthly basis. And every year, the bookshelves expand further with myriad new success-laden tomes.
There are very few books, however, that examine these success stories years later … and that's probably because success is hard to maintain. Once the blush goes off the rose, innovation becomes slogging work and that's typically when reality creeps in. Want proof? Read a business book that is 15, 20 or 25 years old and see where the success stories are today.  
I read a lot of David Aaker, who in a very "meta" way became the branding icon he described in his books. In one book, Aaker went on and on about the wonders of the Saturn car company: how it was doing things differently; how it was making every effort to do what the people wanted, not Wall Street. And, in the early days, it was very successful at this, and that was worth celebrating.
In the years since, however, as the car market changed, so did Saturn's parent company's plans. The old ways crept in and slowly turned innovative Saturn into an old-style company with some now-wistful branding.   So, what does this have to do with the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry? Everything.  
At a macro level, the pharmaceutical firms were the mavericks of the chemical industries of their day, as the biotechs were later the mavericks of the pharmaceutical industry. In many respects, the blush has gone off for the biotech industry as consumers clamor for new approaches to health and as the mavericks of that industry go off to create "the next big thing."
Even within companies, the same cycles occur, as therapeutic categories or drug families show so much hope as the next great panacea, only to see their fortunes fluctuate as more data comes in, or newer, shinier candidates come out of discovery (see my commentary from the April 2013 issue of DDNEWS, "An aside on side effects").
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.
Rather than solely learn the lessons from the front end of the success stories, should we not also try to learn the lessons from the sometimes-demoralizing back end? It would be interesting to re-examine the stories from DDNEWS' first year—or any other publication'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't already figured it out? We will almost never hear about the times the dolphins pushed the stranded seafarers further out to sea rather than to shore, because those people probably drowned. Thus, the anecdotal evidence is skewed in favor of success stories.
Willis is the features editor of DDNEWS. He has worked at both ends of the pharmaceutical industry, from basic research to marketing, and has written about biomedical science for almost two decades.



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