Written by Shailesh Maingi, CEO & Founder, Kineticos

Recently I bought a new bike. No, not a Harley. A bicycle. Nothing fancy, just a basic hybrid to explore the trails near my house. I was inflating the tires for the maiden voyage when I broke the stem. After processing my annoyance, I was left with one of life’s minor problems: I had never changed a bike flat. To top it off, it was the rear tire which meant I had to worry about the brakes and gears.

I contemplated taking it to the bike shop. But the prospect of a delay in getting the bike fixed (I still wanted to go for a ride), the humiliation of asking for help for such a simple task, combined with the desire to learn routine bike maintenance1 convinced me to tackle the job myself. One of my simple mantras is that if a lot of people can do something, then I can too. This certainly fit the bill.

After inspection, I discovered that I had broken the stem on the inner tube. This was good news. But fact that the (relatively inexpensive) inner tube failed and not the tire was not an accident. It was a by-product of a well-thought design. More on that later.

Next, I had to learn how to fix a bike flat. I Googled it2 which led to YouTube videos. After 15 minutes, I knew how to solve my problem (in theory of course). A quick ride to the neighborhood bike store and I had 2 (just in case I punctured the first one) inner tubes of the correct size.

Then it was actually time to apply my knowledge. Understanding the theory is different than putting it into practice. Since I was a novice, I expected that this would take a little longer than what I saw online. I released the rear wheel without a problem. Removing the damaged inner tube was also straightforward. Placing the new inner tube into the tire required some finesse, but was not difficult.

The last step of placing the tire back on the bike was the most challenging, primarily because I had to move the brakes and gears out of the way. Better to watch a couple more videos than to have to explain to the bike mechanic how I damaged the brakes while fixing a flat. Ultimately, I inverted the bike, moved the gears and brakes out of the way, snapped the tire back in place, and pumped up the tire.

Changing a bike tire is a relatively simple task. But even this relatively simple task required many critical thinking and problem solving skills.3 I completed the entire process in about 90 minutes, including going to the store. It cost me about $5. And I learned something new. What really simplified this process was easy access to information and a well thought-out bike design.

I’m trying to make a few points here. First, human beings are very capable of mastering these complex cognitive tasks. We do them effortlessly and without much reflection on their difficulty. But maybe this is a mistake. If we were more aware of these tools, we would specifically look to keep them sharpened.

Which brings me to my next point: it is easier to learn today than at any time in human history. The world wide web has emancipated knowledge and Google has organized it. Now it’s up to all of us to harness it.

Of course, learning how to change a bike tire is trivial compared to learning about immuno-oncology. But I routinely meet biopharma CEOs who, despite not having a science degree, have managed to understand the scientific and technical complexities of their companies and our industry.

True, these CEOs may not have the depth of knowledge of their CSO or CMO, but that misses the point. That is not the goal. The goal is to understand the science well enough to manage the opportunities and risks. Purely delegating all responsibility, without an understanding of the trade-offs, is a recipe for disaster.

My next point revolves around organizing complex, knowledge based organizations, such as biopharma. Bear with me as I make this point.

The intelligent design of common household items is all the rage4. We’ve learned the lesson that everyday items should be simple, easy-to-use, and intuitive. Simple objects are easier to manufacture, cost less, and are easier to use and repair. What’s the downside? That requires more thought up-front, with conscious decisions about trade-offs.

In fact, the more complex the underlying process, the more necessary it is to have an intuitive design. This concept of design applies not only to common objects like bikes, computers and dishwashers, but also organizations. This is especially important for complex organizations. Again, the more complex the organization, the simpler the rules we must have for managing that organization.

And what is more complex than managing a modern biopharma today? Capital can become scarce just when biopharma needs it the most, licensing and co-development deals can suffer from misaligned objectives, and the underlying science may not be well understood. And who has to make sense of it all? Human beings, full of cognitive and emotional biases.

So, this makes those workers in our industry the prototypical knowledge workers, as defined by Peter Drucker5, the original management guru. The good news is that people, our workers in biotech, have more access to information than ever before.

Just like my earlier example of the non-scientist CEO who learns technology, the technically trained scientist can learn about business and management. Our choice of a major in college when we were 18 does not doom us to a lifetime of ignorance in all other domains!

But not only can we go broader into ancillary subjects, we can dive deeper. Type in gene therapy in your browser and 7.42 million results pop up in .47 seconds. Amazing and overwhelming at the same time. So learning how to learn is a critical skill for any worker in the biopharma knowledge industry.

Here is my last point: Is your company thoughtfully designed? Have you rooted out complexity? The business and science of a biotech company is convoluted enough. It doesn’t need an added dose of complexity. With that in mind, consider the following:

  • Do you have a clear, unambiguous mission/purpose/objectives aligned to patient outcomes, R&D progress and financial discipline?
  • Are your goals aligned with key metrics and communicated routinely?
  • Do you have a convoluted, matrixed organization with dual reporting structures and dotted lines? Or is it organized into a simple, easy-to-understand structure?
  • Do you have a process to hire and retain your best team?
  • Does everyone have one main functional priority? Do they understand their role and how it fits in with the overall company objectives?
  • Is your compensation simple, easy to understand, and directly aligned to the individual’s and company goals?

These are, of course, simple questions. But it’s amazing how many organizations don’t follow the ABCs of organizational design. The work is hard enough for staff. Embracing simplicity reduces the management burden on the enterprise.

About now, I know what you’re thinking: he got all this out of changing a bike flat?

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1 With apologies to Robert Pirsig and his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Yes, Google it and not search for it on the internet. This tells you the monopoly and utter control that Google has. A topic for another time.

3 Bloom’s Taxonomy catalogs the most concrete to most abstract thinking levels.

  • Knowledge: Recall of something encountered before but without having to change it, use it or understand it; facts.
  • Comprehension – Understanding the knowledge acquired without needing to relate it to other information.
  • Application – Use of a learned concept to resolve some situation or solve a new problem in an appropriate way.
  • Analysis – Taking something learned apart into separate components for purposes of thinking about the parts and how they fit together.
  • Synthesis – Generating or creating something different by assembling or connecting ideas in a way that makes a whole.
  • Evaluation – Looking at the particular value of materials, information or methods in characterizing the whole.

This is especially true in computers. The recent focus on industrial design can be traced to Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive, and Apple.

5 Here is how Peter Drucker describes the shift to a knowledge economy:

“In this society, knowledge is the primary resource for individuals and for the economy overall. Land, labor, and capital—the economist’s traditional factors of production—do not disappear, but they become secondary. They can be obtained, and obtained easily, provided there is specialized knowledge. At the same time, however, specialized knowledge by itself produces nothing. It can become productive only when it is integrated into a task. And that is why the knowledge society is also a society of organizations: the purpose and function of every organization, business and non-business alike, is the integration of specialized knowledges into a common task.”

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Shailesh Maingi is the Founder and CEO of Kineticos and has a passion for the role R&D plays in improving healthcare outcomes.  Mr. Maingi is also an adjunct professor at the Kenan Flagler School of Business at the University of North Carolina and serves on the board of directors for a number of biopharmaceutical, diagnostic and contract manufacturing companies.

 Contact Shailesh