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Darwin's Medicine blog

Professor Brian D Smith is an authority on the pharmaceutical industry and works at SDA Bocconi University and Hertfordshire Business School.

It's Complicated

Commercial executives should be more like their scientist colleagues


It’s one of the more interesting aspects of my working life that its different spheres overlap. My professional interests in the evolution of the industry and my personal love of all things scientific sometimes collide in unexpected, serendipitous ways. And, as the great philosopher Arthur Koestler reasoned, it is this bisociation – the blending of ideas from two very different areas of thought – that leads to valuable insight. As usual, I’m going to ask you to stick with me while I dip into the science before returning to the practical implications for people working in the life sciences industry.

My work, as regular readers of this column will know, involves the application of evolutionary science to the pharmaceutical, medical technology and related industries. My research reveals the mechanism of how business models evolve or become extinct and my advisory work with companies involves applying that research to their particular business context. Biological evolution is undirected and wasteful but, armed with the science, life sciences companies can guide their own evolution in a much more efficient way. But, in practice, there’s a challenge getting this advice accepted.

Evolutionary science is complicated. It involves being quite precise about things called microfoundations, organisational routines and capabilities, the organisational equivalent of bases, genes and proteins. Now, complicated science shouldn’t be a problem for our industry. Life sciences companies exist by harnessing ideas at the leading edge of human knowledge. You would never hear a head of R&D complaining that the science is too complicated for her, would you? But that’s exactly what happens all the time in the commercial side of the business.

For many (thankfully not all) commercial executives, their touchstone is simplicity. They like their intellectual food cut up for them. They are particularly fond of being able to reduce new thinking to three letter acronyms or packaging it in a well-designed infographic. Underneath their thinking lies the implicit assumption that simple is good. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to ‘dumb it down’. Now, I’m all in favour of communicating clearly, but I’m with Einstein on this one: ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.’ In other words, simplify until you have to leave out important parts of the thinking, then stop.

Stopping commercial executives taking complicated ideas from my work – speciation of business models, contextual segmentation, reality filters, etc – and dumbing them down too much has been a long-standing headache for me. For many years, I’ve wished I could find some little story or example that could help me pithily communicate that simple may be good, but simplistic is bad. And here’s where the bisociation comes in.

I’ve just finished reading a wonderful popular science book, ‘The Beautiful Cure’, by immunologist Daniel M Davis. In it, he retells the story of Sir Marc Feldmann. If you don’t know who this great scientist is, he’s the man whose work led to the development of TNF inhibitors, so he could be said to be the father of the world’s biggest selling drug. He is a bona fide hero of the life sciences business. In the book, Davis describes meeting Feldmann in 2016, towards the end of his fantastically successful career. Asked what he had learned from his work, Feldmann said with a chuckle: “We discovered that life is complicated.” I loved the quote for more than its dry humour. What Feldmann did was to avoid reducing his work on cytokines to a three-letter acronym or a pretty infographic. In my interpretation at least, he was politely declining to over-simplify the topic to a degree where it left out important information.

So what’s the practical implication here? It is that many commercial executives have a pervasive habit of dumbing down a complex topic, a habit that is not prevalent amongst their scientist colleagues, and which is frequently harmful. From the perspective of an evolutionary scientist, it’s quite clear where this habit came from; it’s an idea transplanted from selling methodology, where brevity often outweighs information content. But in the context of internal discussions – strategy development for example, or understanding the heterogeneity of the market – dumbing down is a maladaptation. It leads to analyses that are not only simple but too simple and, consequently, recommendations and actions that are not fully aligned with the complexities of reality. As I often tell those executives I work with, you wouldn’t treat a patient without being as sure as you could be about the science, yet you seem to be willing to have your brand or even business managed on the basis of an acronym, a clever metaphor or an allegorical story. Those commercial executives might take a lesson from Einstein and Feldmann. When thinking, really thinking, about your market, it’s complicated so make it as simple as possible but no simpler.

Article by
Professor Brian D Smith

Professor Brian D Smith is a world-recognised authority on the evolution of the life sciences industry. He welcomes comments and questions at

29th April 2019

From: Healthcare


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