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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.

Connectome competitiveness

It’s not what you do, it’s how what you do connects


If the parallels between biological and business evolution run through my research, it’s the coincidences between them that make my work fun. This is especially true when findings by my biologist peers coincide with new knowledge emerging from my own work. As usual, let me make my way towards the practical conclusions.

Size isn’t that important
I read with alacrity anything I can get find about human evolution and, especially, how we came to be the cleverest animals on the planet. For a long time, palaeoanthropologists have used the limited data they have about brain size to draw what conclusions they could about how we became so different from our ancestors, our primate cousins and indeed all other mammals. Superficially, the main story is about brain volume and, to a lesser extent, how parts of our brains developed differentially. But we’ve known for some time that size and even shape can’t fully explain our remarkable cognitive abilities, and these simple measurements have even less ability to explain the cognitive impairments that trouble psychologists and psychiatrists. It’s limitations like this that make scientists push forward, as we see in the field of connectomics. If you look at the fantastic work of the Human Connectome Project and, for example, last year’s publication by Andrea Luppi et al, you will see where that pushing is leading to. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, it’s the connectivity within the brain that matters. To quote the Luppi paper: ‘Synergistic integrative processes and complex cognition across higher-order brain networks. The human brain leverages synergistic information to a greater extent than nonhuman primates...’. If, like me, you’re a science geek at heart, this sort of work is just nectar, even if it has no relevance to my own work.

Differently identical
But human neurological connectivity does, it seems, have a direct and practically useful relevance to my own research into why some life sciences companies are smarter than others. Some of my recent work has provided a perfect natural experiment: two companies of very similar structure and even therapy focus who both allowed me to peer deep into how they developed and executed strategy. Contrary to my expectations, I found that underneath the surface similarities, the two firms were very different. In the first, a clear and coherent understanding of the market environment allowed them to build a compelling and notably consensual strategy. This also accounted for secondary observations, such as reduced intra-organisational conflict and speedier decision-making. By contrast, the second firm’s understanding of its environment was a fractured picture, seen differently by siloed departments. Their strategy, such as it was, was an incoherent compromise that bore all the signs of a political settlement. Conflict was tangible and decision-making was tortuous. The relative performance of each company was not that different, but this was largely accounted for by luck in the development process. The future trajectories of each firm seemed obvious. You can imagine that, to a management scientist, this was fascinating and intriguing.

Connections count
As I drilled down, the analogues with human neurological connectivity came into focus. Both firms had great functional expertise, but firm one, to use Luppi’s words, ‘leveraged synergistic information’ much better than firm two. For example, in firm one, Medical Affairs’ understanding of prescriber motivations, Market Access’ grasp of payer differences and Marketing’s study of patient behaviours were woven together to identify where and how this firm should focus its resources. Firm two, where every decision was a cross-functional negotiation, was a mosaic of inconsistent, often contradictory, activities. The roots of firm one’s superiority could be traced to microfoundations (see Darwin’s Medicine: Microfoundations matter, January 2023, available on request). They had a common lexicon, agreed about how tools like value propositions worked and had cross-functional teams that aligned more around goals than around organisation charts. These microfoundations were made all the more salient by contrast with firm two. It was notable that, in firm two, Medical Affairs thought that Marketing’s techniques were trivial in comparison to its own ‘scientific’ methods. Equally, the relationships between product development people and Market Access – one early and mutual, the other late and transactional – could not have been more different. Just as neuroscientists can see connections between brain regions, these two similar firms showed markedly different connections between departments.

Variation and selection
If the consequential differences between these two firms are obvious, then the causes of those differences are too. All firms vary their internal processes all the time. Some changes stick, others don’t. In firm one, disadvantaged by misfortune in development, better connections had grown and then become embedded. In the luckier firm two, there was no selection pressure for this superior cognitive ability and their evolution stalled. Their contrasting futures seem obvious, as do the lessons for other life sciences firms.

This column is also available on YouTube (@ProfBrianDSmith) or as a podcast.

Professor Brian D Smith works at SDA Bocconi and the University of Hertfordshire. He welcomes questions via

27th March 2023

From: Marketing


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