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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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September 7, 2010

Columns Outside The Doors

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Posted by Derek

Nature Reviews Drug Discovery has an article on behavior in large drug organizations, which they put together after interviewing a long list of current and former R&D heads. Many of the recommendations are non-startling (find ways to reward people who are willing to take calculated risks, encourage independent thinking, all those things that are easy to write down and hard to implement). One part near the end caught my eye, though:

Companies should examine what we term the 'columns outside the doors' phenomenon and the subtle impact that this form of recognition might have on entrepreneurial behaviour. Smith described this phenomenon, which occurs across the world: as start-up companies become successful, they are relocated from humble laboratories to grander buildings with columns outside their doors. Interestingly, such edifices often violate the observed inverse square relationship between communication among scientists in laboratories and the distance between these laboratories. We offer this insight more as a provocative thought than as a firm recommendation.

And what what reminded me of was a very similar observation by C. Northcote Parkinson, of Parkinson's Law fame:

The outer door, in bronze and glass, is placed centrally in a symmetrical facade. Polished shoes glide quietly over shining rubber to the glittering and silent elevator. The overpoweringly cultured receptionist will murmur with carmine lips into an ice-blue receiver. She will wave you into a chromium armchair, consoling you with a dazzling smile for any slight but inevitable delay. Looking up from a glossy magazine, you will observe how the wide corridors radiate toward departments A, B, and C. From behind closed doors will come the subdued noise of an ordered activity. A minute later and you are ankle deep in the director’s carpet, plodding sturdily toward his distant, tidy desk. Hypnotized by the chief’s unwavering stare, cowed by the Matisse hung upon his wall, you will feel that you have found real efficiency at last.

In point of fact you will have discovered nothing of the kind. It is now known that a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse. . .

It is by no means certain that an influential reader of this chapter could prolong the life of a dying institution merely by depriving it of its streamlined headquarters. What he can do, however, with more confidence, is to prevent any organization strangling itself at birth. Examples abound of new institutions coming into existence with a full establishment of deputy directors, consultants and executives; all these coming together in a building specially designed for their purpose. And experience proves that such an institution will die. . .

Readers may have a few examples in mind from the drug industry. (The freshly constructed labs at Sterling, for example, completed around the time that Kodak was wiping the place out, are well spoken of). So, those of you in temporary quarters, jammed into buildings that don't quite work, may not be as bad off as you might think.

Comments (25) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Drug Industry History | Who Discovers and Why


1. A Nonny Mouse on September 7, 2010 7:44 AM writes...

Clearly he was speaking about the gleaming GSK headquaters which are on the way into central London from Heathrow.

These replaced a squat, aging Beecham office block and people knew that the end was neigh.

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2. Anonymous on September 7, 2010 8:46 AM writes...

So ... one in these luxurious office settings, it makes sense to outsource to India, China, etc.

Hmmmm ...


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3. RB Woodweird on September 7, 2010 9:08 AM writes...

"Parkinson's Law briefly stated is that 'work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.'" (from a comment in the link)

What is the name of the law which states that "workspace expands so as to fill the benchtop available"?

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4. CYTIRPS on September 7, 2010 9:20 AM writes...

One should remember that those R&D heads do not work in the lab. What do they know? In the start-ups, everyone knows they have to work together since there is very limited time. If they don't, they all drown when the boat sinks. In a large company, only the so-called "superstars" are rewarded. They do not think it takes a good team to succeed and that's the end of communication. When those superstars rise to R&D heads, they only talk the talk but never walk the walk. They can always find an explanation of poor communication. Lab design sounds like a good scapegoat. It cannot defend itself. Communication is never about physical environment. It is all about people.

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5. anchor on September 7, 2010 9:26 AM writes...

Same "S..." from these mangers (MBA's) who have done much damage to the drug industry and some of them are still doing, even as I write this. The sad truth is that "knowledgeable chemist", who ridiculed all these theories (while as a scientist) are speaking this language, once they are appointed as managers. I have seen this happen in my company of World repute!

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6. petros on September 7, 2010 9:26 AM writes...

Plenty of examples

AZ's newest site Lund never even reached capacity and closes shortly

Bayer's swish new Japanese site in Kyoto opened in 1995 lasted just over 10 years, a shorter life than Derek's former home at the WDF

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7. ex-Pfizerite on September 7, 2010 10:05 AM writes...

I read the article and i thought the R&D heads were tiptoeing around the dead elephant in the room ... their inability to drive the failure rate from 90% to 80% in clinical trials. Pfizer actually studied why their, Warner-Lambert's, Pharmacia's, Upjohn's, Searle's and also included the Wyeth's series of companies clinical stage compounds failed. One finding was that the companies institutional memory was very important. However, Pfizer promptly sacked the studied lead author.

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8. quintus on September 7, 2010 10:19 AM writes...

@7 I agree, I read it as well and they are avoiding the elephant.
One phrase caught my attention:
"scientists become middle managers as a reward for their outstanding scientific contributions and often for their entrepreneurial behaviour. However, after they attain the status of middle managers, they are rewarded for productivity as measured by the number of compounds at the required phase, by achieving timelines and by performing activities that engender need for control and predictability, none of which might be the appropriate measures for discovery."
This is so true. Then they spend their time like headless chickens running after senior management!

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9. CMCguy on September 7, 2010 10:47 AM writes...

This phenomenon does not only apply to large organizations and may be even more of a correlation to small companies that have collapsed or otherwise did not survive. I have seen several and been part of a couple instances where start-ups or young companies moved into spectacular new facilities only to suffer set-backs and/or failures. Although there was circumstances of over reaching by planning for a success that hit reality of failed clinical trials there was more wanting to present a certain image to investors. There appears to be an major attitude shift, not only more of a physical disconnection, between management and staff that occurs with the transition. I never could really understand why a fancy lobby and gilded conference rooms/executive offices was so much more important for attracting investors to a technology company than having strong functional labs and adequate staffing. I don't discount that maturation is always needed for progress and with that must adopt certain elements of sophistication however when the value of outside appearance so overwhelms internal foundations trouble seems to always follow.

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10. Mark on September 7, 2010 10:58 AM writes...

This makes me chuckle. Having spent a good portion of my youth working at Pfizer, new building did indeed seem to signal the end.

Pfizer's building of the TDF and building 36 in Ann Arbor; finished just in time to close the site. The New London R&D headquarters, Pharmacia's new R&D complex in Kalamazoo, the list goes on and on.


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11. Sili on September 7, 2010 11:40 AM writes...

I'm vaguely reminded of that hospital in Yes, Minister that was always on budget, always spick and span and only too happy to show the minister around.

Of course, they could only do it by having no patients, and they were most upset when it was suggested that this might be the purpose of hospitals in the first place. And of course the press went nuts when the Ebol Gubmint tried to close a hospital.

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12. emjeff on September 7, 2010 12:32 PM writes...

When I was at DuPont Pharma, the wolves (aka BMS) were at the door and they senior muckity-mucks were still inviting us to tour the new "model" laboratories...

Bread and circuses...

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13. MedChem on September 7, 2010 2:11 PM writes...

There were SOME very good points in this article:

1: The part where Yamada went back and rewarded James Black. I know from personal experience that nothings takes your drive and spirit away like getting a slap in the face by management after you found a great IND cmpd for some incondequential infractions you committed inorder to get the job done. Kinda like that navy seal from a while ago that finished a dangerous mission only to be charged for giving a terrorist a black lip. We have the same kind of people running the country as those running our pharma companies?

2: ‘mavericks’ and ‘true believers’.

Only "mavericks" nowadays will be charged with giving people black lips.

3: About "increasing size and complexity of research groups" hampering entrepreneurial behaviors.

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14. Henning Makholm on September 7, 2010 2:39 PM writes...

Could somebody explain what it means for edifices to "violate the observed inverse square relationship between communication among scientists in laboratories and the distance between these laboratories"?

I suppose the claim is that they cause scientists in laboratories {close to/far from} each other communicate {less/more} than they would otherwise, but which of the four combinations is relevant, and why is that a bad thing? Why is an inverse square law more optimal than some other relationship (inverse cube? logarithmic? whatever?) that supposedly holds in buildings-with-columns?

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15. MCH on September 7, 2010 3:15 PM writes...

In reply to Henning Makholm:

Please see research of Thomas Allen for the inverse relationship. Check the wikipedia for Allen curve.

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16. Jose on September 7, 2010 3:16 PM writes...

HM- I think the point he's trying to make, that as the distance between lab increases, the communication function drops off *very* steeply. At a tiny start up, (5 m radius) there's constant (hourly) interaction, followed by slightly bigger digs (20 m, daily), to WDF scale (100+m , monthly to never).

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17. Henning Makholm on September 7, 2010 6:48 PM writes...

I'll assume for the sake of the discussion that communication usually drops off as the inverse square of the distance. But I still don't understand how the quoted article thinks the relationship differs from inverse square in columned edifices and what exactly the practical consequences of this "violation" of the inverse square law are supposed to be.

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18. ss on September 7, 2010 11:17 PM writes...

This fall after the "rise" happens in CROs too. I previously worked in a CRO firm which collapsed as soon as it moved into a spanking new facility with a shiny glass front and thick walls and corridors between the management and the labs. The new facility in this case was constructed to impress big ticket clients, but they did not seem to be too impressed, judging by the subsquent downfall.

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19. Donough on September 8, 2010 3:02 AM writes...

It is not just pharma that this happens in.

In research generally over confident projections are made and these grandiose gestures are matched by grandeur. Bioethanol companies are a good example of these (e.g. Range).
What happens is that people get overly buoyed by a success and think the next success will be around the corner. Suddenly scientists that realized that 5000 options is not good start thinking in management; 5000 options, how can we fail, how can we not find one success?

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20. ex-MRK on September 8, 2010 6:51 AM writes...

Example of the "perfection of planned layout" of a dying company = Whitehouse Station.

Independent thinking? HA!

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21. ex-MRK on September 8, 2010 6:51 AM writes...

Example of the "perfection of planned layout" of a sying company = Whitehouse Station.

Independent thinking? HA!

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22. emol on September 8, 2010 2:30 PM writes...

@Henning: I think it's a language wrinkle that is confusing. The phrase "violate the...inverse square relationship..." is really saying they violated the common-sense conclusion drawn from that relationship, that is, don't move researchers too far apart or communication will suffer. The relationship holds true, with unfortunate consequences for the violator. In short: big, fancy buildings (with columns!) move researchers too far apart for effective communication, and research discoveries dry up.

My question: is this distinguishable from the observation that hungry, slightly desperate researchers (people!) in humble circumstances do more and better work than well-fed, seemingly secure researchers in posh digs? Potentially confounding variable to the ol' communication law.

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23. Ann on September 9, 2010 10:07 AM writes...

Intersting study about what motivates us:

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24. abos on September 9, 2010 7:01 PM writes...

A fancy building hardly predicts decline. Its just that no one cares when a POS little startup fails! Back to the science of it all, is there actual data proving this theory?

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25. Kaleberg on September 10, 2010 10:33 PM writes...

In computer science it's called the "edifice complex", management gets so engrossed, and often over extended financially, building its new headquarters, that the company falls apart.

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