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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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February 10, 2009

Do Scientists Read Business Books? (Plus: Add a Circle to Dante's Inferno!)

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Posted by Derek

The Wall Street Journal recently asked a whole list of CEOs , including Daniel Vasella of Novartis, for business book recommendations, and on the whole, it’s a saner selection than one might have feared (Peter Drucker, etc.)

Over at the Atlantic’s Business Channel (where I’m also contributing some occasional entries), a fellow blogger who operates under the name of “Harvey Wallbanger” noted that article and is in turn soliciting nominations for the worst business book. And yes, he opens with the grievously awful “Who Moved My Cheese”, which I was careful to stay ten feet away from at all times. (On a totally different note, I wonder how many readers I’d have by now if I’d started writing under the name of Harvey Wallbanger? Maybe I don’t want to know the answer.)

To be honest, I’ve always had a bit of a nervous feeling about anyone in the sciences who really seems to enjoy pop business books. Most of the big sellers seem to be full of post hoc reasoning, sweeping statements that are backed up by weak or nonexistent evidence, and plenty of blatant padding. (Other than that, I like ‘em just fine, I guess). I think that a good scientist should always be asking “Hmm. . .I wonder if that’s true?” about every assertion, particularly when someone’s trying to sell you something or claims to be imparting some vital information. And it’s hard for me to reconcile that worldview with this sort of stuff:

(Gary) Hamel specializes in identifying a handful of currently sexy companies, drawing hasty conclusions about the reasons for their success, and then writing books with advice like "go non-linear," "listen to the periphery," and make your company "an opportunity-seeking missile." Later, when some of those companies fail, see their executives carted off to jail, or both, it's no skin off Hamel's back, because he's already penning his next breathless tome.

It's good work if you can get it, I suppose, though not perhaps if you care about where your soul goes after you die. (And if Dante was right about hell holding particular punishments for particular fiends, then there's a whole mess of Harvard Business Press authors who are likely to find themselves sitting on uncomfortable metal chairs for an eternity-long PowerPoint presentation on The New Economy 2.0.)

Now, I like that idea. In fact, I like it so much that I’m going to do something that I’ll probably regret: nominations are open in the comments for new slots in a Dante-style Inferno for various scientific and pharmaceutical sinners. At the moment, I’m picturing the Circle of the Clueless, wandering around for eternity trying to find their rear ends with both hands, but I’ll let the readership take it from there. . .

Comments (31) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. Hap on February 10, 2009 1:27 PM writes...

Can I just nominate Stephen Stefano? Or would he be included under some other heading, such as "Autobiography, demonic"?

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2. Lucifer on February 10, 2009 1:45 PM writes...

Hey, I am trying to run a business. Why would I want them in hell? You guys can keep them.

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3. HelicalZz on February 10, 2009 1:49 PM writes...

Sorry, no bad business book recommendations here. But people in the sciences would certainly do themselves a large favor in my opinion by reading some business tomes. Sure, avoid the Trump biography type stuff, but do read books that further your understanding on the business side of what you do.

Do get Clayton Christensen's books (Innovators Dilemma to start). Do read Pisano's 'Science Business' (especially the 2nd half). Do have an idea of the market potential for the project on which you work and the competition, and be able to talk about it.

At work, I'm a chemist with CMC responsibilities, but at home I'm reading Buffet's biography (The Snowball). My last Amazon order (yesterday) was for Kern's 'Drug Like Properties' (opinions on this?), and Katsenelson's 'Avtive Value Investing'.

Lastly, if you are working in a public company and you haven't read your own 10K filing - shame on you! If you are with a start-up (like me) read 'Startups That Work' (Kurtzman), then take a very critical look around you. Both will serve you well, or at least lead to questions that should.


P.S. - Love to see a followup post on the best drug development books.

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4. milkshake on February 10, 2009 2:00 PM writes...

The Clueless are not mortal sinners (and they are mostly mid-level in the organizations). For them, a hundred-years-long project meeting in the Purgatory is as far as I would go.

The top ranks of pharma execs are filled by rain-making salesmen. These folks are not clueless. Like any good hustler, they are slick and confident and they say things pleasing to the chump stockholders - what a great profit-making potential the blockbuster candidates have, and how there will be 4 billions in post-merger synergies. They do not necessarily care if what they are pitching is going to hold true six years later.

For the damnation of corporate bullshitters, I would recommend a lube dip and eternal water-slide through the whale intestines.

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5. RB Woodweird on February 10, 2009 2:14 PM writes...

All those books boil down to is "buy low, sell high" - which we could figure out for ourselves - and "be in the right place at the right time" - which never come with the instructions for finding that place at that time. And endless self-back-slapping.

There are a lot of these writers who, as was aptly said about GWB, were born on third base and thought they'd hit a triple.

The Hell I am thinking of for them is similar to the final scene of The Devil in Miss Jones.

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6. TR on February 10, 2009 2:44 PM writes...

Best business book ever for scientists: "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis. The power of data-driven analysis trumps old-style hypotheses. Whenever I see this on a scientist's shelf, I know I'm dealing with someone who isn't a prisoner of what they learned in grad school.

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7. Derek Lowe on February 10, 2009 2:52 PM writes...

Glad to hear you say that, TR. I enjoyed "Moneyball" a great deal, and have recommended it to others in the past. . .

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8. Anon-e on February 10, 2009 3:00 PM writes...

Need to post this one anonymously.

No doubt, there is a special circle for overly controlling, technically inept Human Resources personnel.

In this level of the inferno, the doomed HR person is unemployed and continually seeks to gain employment from the other HR exiles.

Forming a circle, one HR person hands their OWN resume to the next HR person--only to have it immediatly fed into a shredder. Between shreddings, the HR person is required to call a jobline and go through 10 minutes of online menus only to get to a voicemail message saying, "Thank you for your interest in our firm--we have received your application and it is being reviewed. We'll be in touch". And the cycle repeats ad infinitum.

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9. You're Pfizered on February 10, 2009 3:28 PM writes...

6 and 7

Great read, but Beane's over-rated. He believed that he saw something in the player's numbers that other GMs couldn't see. On the whole, that draft class faired very poorly.

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10. CMC Guy on February 10, 2009 3:33 PM writes...

One should try to not to remain part of the Clueless because like it or not people who are working for livings have to deal with Side Effects. RB Woodweird assessment is good ("work hard at given task" another common sense road) but often a particular nuance in business philosophy will take hold for a period so it can be helpful to be aware of what is behind executive actions (even if they still appear worthless).

Not sure I could recommend any particular current books but suggest it is wise to keep abreast of business/management trends as impacts will be felt, now or in future, in industry. I don't read business books much any more as Business Magazines or Newspaper Section often can be scanned to pick up a sense of "what's in vogue". Sometimes biographies, which I do like to read, are disguised as means to promote certain business principles as road to success. Better yet talking with friends/co-workers directly engaged in business areas can provide useful perspectives (when the arguing subsides). If you know someone working on a MBA ask about what they are learning as likely will experience the "new approach" in a couple years.

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11. Anonymous on February 10, 2009 4:13 PM writes...

Among the ranks of the Clueless in purgatory should be the head of research who famously announced that it was just about the numbers: "XXXX has set firm targets for how many compounds need to move forward at each stage of the development process. Take discovery scientists, the group that identifies new ways to attack diseases and creates compounds to be passed on to another group for more extensive testing. When XXXX came in, that group was moving just four drug candidates out of its labs every year. XXXXX set the new target at 12 -- with no increase in resources or headcount. The target has been met every year since its 2001 implementation. This year [2006], the bar has been raised to 15."

Increase the input, and the output must increase was the mindset.

Did that strategy work? I guess it depends on your metric. Person XXXXX just walked away with a multi-million dollar separation package when their company was acquired by Pfizer for the biologics portfolio so, I guess,...

The reason for Clueless in Purgatory is for the mindset that ingesting more junk in at the beginning will result in more quality at the other end of the tube. I know of nothing that improves in quality as it moves down the tube.

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12. HelicalZz on February 10, 2009 4:19 PM writes...

Read this too:

Pharma2020 from PriceWaterhouseCoopers


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13. Anonymous on February 10, 2009 4:22 PM writes...

ASTONISHING! What brilliant insight! The model is broken! Licensing will become more important. Who knew!!!!

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14. Darkside on February 10, 2009 4:27 PM writes...

Hap is absolutely right. Stephen Stefano would be down there around level 23 or so, with a gigantic nose up his butt. Each time he breathed, the nose would enlarge by 50 percent.

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15. pete on February 10, 2009 4:56 PM writes...

Hmm...What jumps to mind is a Circle for journal editors who would INSIST that authors strip Figures of helpful graphics, such as: (KEY: Closed circle = ....) in favor of burying such info. in the Figure Captions as text.

Call it Circle of the Fussy Obscurists.

Punishment ? Having to write captions for a never ending stream of random data Figures...and no potty breaks !

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16. Handles on February 10, 2009 6:01 PM writes...

Two thumbs up for Kerns and Di, Helicalzz. A colleague bought it, and now I think I must own my own copy.

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17. Don B. on February 10, 2009 6:05 PM writes...

Did any one notice that C&EN had an article explaining "Cash Flow" to us ignorant chemists?

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18. McChemist on February 10, 2009 7:13 PM writes...

I have to agree with You're Pfizered; some of Moneyball's points aren't so impressive five years after the fact.

I find I learn quite a bit from the stories of failed businesses - Liar's Poker is a good one, as long as we're discussing Michael Lewis.

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19. SRC on February 10, 2009 10:46 PM writes...

I take a contrarian view. I think the business books are valuable as a pons asinorum. Anyone stupid enough to take them seriously should be avoided at all costs. Think of it like the bright colors of toxic prey. It's like suggesting with a straight face that someone invest his 401k in Beanie Babies or lottery tickets. If he doesn't laugh, but looks thoughtful, you know you've got a live one on your hands, and can act accordingly.

In this context, I used to read Business Week (on which every cover uses the words "hot" and/or "top" at least once) strictly and solely to vaccinate myself against the next business fad. Forewarned is forearmed, and all that.

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20. S Silverstein on February 10, 2009 10:55 PM writes...

Most of the big sellers seem to be full of post hoc reasoning, sweeping statements that are backed up by weak or nonexistent evidence, and plenty of blatant padding.

Congratulations Derek, you've just described executive behaviors responsible for many of our current corporate ills.

If I'd had the opportunity to debate some of the executives I'd encountered and been able to point out their fallacious reasoning without fear of retaliation, it'd have been a true spectacle.

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21. S Silverstein on February 10, 2009 11:03 PM writes...

Read this too:

Pharma2020 from PriceWaterhouseCoopers

Is that a Stargate on the book's cover? Oh, wait - Pharma 2020 - it's The Time Tunnel!

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22. John Novak on February 10, 2009 11:29 PM writes...

There must be a special place reserved for the former scientist of engineer who joined management decades ago, let his technical skills atrophy, yet still micromanages and gets it wrong.

Clasically, pride goes in Purgatory, but these guys belong in hell. (And it's a very select group-- just being a formerly technical manager is not enough. Not even being rusty is enough. One must be rusty, yet prideful enough to think one's still "got it.")

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23. Chemjobber on February 11, 2009 2:40 AM writes...

Whenever people suggest quantitative approaches to medicinal chemistry (rule of 5, anyone?), I am reminded of Moneyball.

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24. Doug on February 11, 2009 9:11 AM writes...

We need a special place in hell for project managers who insist that we stop mucking about with extraneous issues like positive and negative controls because they detract from our focus on results.

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25. John Spevacek on February 11, 2009 9:15 AM writes...

For a book to read, I'd recommend "The Goal" by Goldratt. It is unusual in that it is a novel (not a good one at that) but it makes you see why accounting is so messed up, and how it can drag a whole company down with it.

As for the Harvard press books, I criticize them thusly: The authors look at a bunch of data, reach a conclusion and publish. They never close the loop by taking what they've "learned" and applying it anywhere - they never test their conclusions - a hallmark of bad science.

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26. HelicalZz on February 11, 2009 9:40 AM writes...

Handles - thanks, appreciated.

John Spevacek - You criticize business books with the comment 'a hallmark for bad science'. But business isn't science and it isn't ever going to be. Finding answers via application of scientific method no doubt appeals to many here, but an understanding (or better appreciation) for when not to do this and when to accept and draw conclusions from merely anecdotal evidence or experience is key to business.

There is no testable model for how to best organize a pharma company. Best case is one that is effective with the fewest acceptable tradeoffs. This should not be all that difficult to grasp by those in drug development, but it does seem to be.

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27. Hap on February 11, 2009 10:46 AM writes...

The outcomes of good business are pretty measureable, and even if the results are not reproducible, people aren't unfamiliar with statistics: Do your approaches work better on average than others or than businesses in general? (Statistical mechanics? You don't always need to predict individual events to intuit mechanism.)

If it isn't possible to understand how what you're doing affects your results as a businessperson, then why bother to study business at all? Presumably there are some things that make businesses better and some that do not, and a way to distinguish between them. If it's the case that they have no idea whether their ideas make businesses better or not (and can't find out), then why say they do? Why do they deserve any more respect than supplement makers who claim the sun and moon for their products but have no data at all (but are kind enough to include an FDA warning to pretend they didn't say any of the things they just said)?

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28. UK Chemist on February 12, 2009 3:23 AM writes...

I would recomend the John Kay book, the Hare and the Tortoise, which is a collection of his short articles.It contains quite a good one on our industry.

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29. John Spevacek on February 12, 2009 9:35 AM writes...


Maybe I'm naive, but it seems to me that a large reason for publishing the book is to help other businesses improve by following the conclusions of the book. Couldn't someone do a follow up study where they look at companies that implemented the conclusions and see how they fare? Granted, it would take considerable effort to eliminate bias, as the biggest group of volunteer companies would be the ones that showed improvement. I'd be most interested in how many CEO's read the book, how many thought it was crap and did nothing, how many implemented some of the changes, and what the results were. This would be a significant step toward "scientific" results without relying so heavily on anecdotes.

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30. Sili on February 12, 2009 11:09 AM writes...

Do we need a new place to put people who deny the existence of mountains of evidence?

Or scientists (to be fair, more often engineers and MDs) who think that being an expert in one field automatically confers upon them omniscience to the point that they can pronounce the truth of any matter they care?

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31. Georgia on February 16, 2009 7:35 AM writes...

You know how you tell yourself you are studying because you have your certification books opened in front of you? But you are really clicking on Stumble Upon to find interesting posts to read?

Yeah well, I came across yours and had to write to tell you I enjoyed it very much. I gave it the thumbs up, so more people can come across it and enjoy it also.

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