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Posts Tagged ‘being different’

No, I’m not preparing to board an elevator or wondering about the stock market… This was an interesting conundrum triggered by a recent discussion with a friend. After she told me that she had had a tough time, I tried to encourage her using the old (world?) wisdom saying: “well, you can take some heart in knowing that it can only be up from here…” Her reply was fresh! “Oh no, I don’t like ‘up‘. I have always preferred downhill: it’s more fun!” I had never looked at it from her (skier) perspective, probably because I am mostly a “lowlander” type athlete, the pull of gravity does not enhance my efficiency when rowing. So it seemed to be an interesting question to consider at the beginning of the year in connection to what we wish to achieve and how to do it.

According to some data, as many as 40-45 % of Americans are following the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions.  The order and content of the many “top 10+/- resolutions” lists varies somewhat based on demographics. As expected, our motivations change with age, take the very public evolution of Richard Branson‘s (“The art of self motivation”). Well known for its presence in the music and airlines world, he is now launching the Virgin Group into space exploration (Virgin Galactic), to be followed soon by underwater adventures…

However, the great majority of top personal goals fall under a few categories of action. People would like to:

1. lose (weight), do less (spend, eat)

2. gain (money, education), do more (exercise, volunteering, travel)

3. stop (smoking, drinking, procrastinating).

Seems one could consider these could relate in different ways to the “going up or down?”  question:

– the “positioning” of the goal compared to the starting point

– the action needed to achieve the goal

Looking at all these I’m thinking that, as opposed to downhill skiing, an uphill ride will be needed to achieve any of these destinations, whether at a higher, lower, or same level with the starting point. E.g., gaining in knowledge, stopping a bad habit, or lowering our body weight, all require a sustained effort. No wonder many of these goals will remain just as good intentions: the determination to stick to resolutions can drop by as much as 25 % after the first week of the year! You had likely noticed the January phenomenon if you regularly go to a gym: the swelling attendance falls back to its regular levels in just few weeks. On the other hand, if your goal is to simply have more fun, you could just let yourself “go“….

Although it sounds discouraging, seems people who explicitly make New Year’s resolutions are 10x more likely to eventually attain their goals. To succeed, it helps to approach personal goals the same way we do in business: choosing goals that are important (to us), realistic and measurable, deciding on tactics likely to allow us to achieve them and, of course, executing them! Some even think that success strategies are gender-specific, with women being more likely to succeed if they go public with their resolutions. So, here it is:

This year I’m… going up!

p.s. want some suggestions on how to achieve your goal(s)? See the list published by the USA.gov http://bit.ly/r5sUZ – with helpful links for each of the most popular resolutions:

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“Happy New Year!” We wish it to each other, in many languages, in a form or another at the beginning of every year. Around the same time, millions of us also make personal resolutions (set goals for the year), possibly in an effort to enhance our happiness… This seems a good time of the year and reason for all of us to ponder – again – on the subject of “what is happiness?” At the beginning of last year we investigated it, mostly in relation to one’s work parameters, w/specific data about science-intensive work places, but also suggested general themes (“Where do you find ‘happy scientists’? and what makes them feel that way?”)

One possible immediate reaction to this question is to just dismiss it: why bother? Happiness is hard to define, or very personal (we may all define and experience it differently); however, should you agree the answers might help us better understand ourselves and others and set goals to enable our constant progress toward happiness, here is a selection of insights from the candid responses brought back by an amateur international team who participated in a year-long field exploration of “what makes people happy around the world”, to the “expert opinions” on the nature of happiness from scientists, psychologists, economists, and Buddhists. Please feel free to add your own.

Macro photograph of coca cola bubbles (image via Wikipedia)

The 3 young “happiness ambassadors” comprising the international team of the “206 expedition” just returned from a year-long field research into the subject of “what makes people happy around the world”. Despite their initial plan, they actually only visited 186 of the 206 countries where people drink Coca Cola, the project sponsor (by the way, no relation to me, I do not drink Coca or any other cola). Nonetheless they had traveled 273,204 miles to collect a large sample of international opinions and brought back many of their own new impressions. What I thought was very powerful was their conclusion that around the worldPeople definitely have more things in common than differences”, also demonstrated by the sharing of main reasons to be happy worldwide:Family and friends, food, sports, music, health”. Interestingly, money was only mentioned as important if it enabled people to travel more or spend more time with friends and family. To watch various testimonials collected all over the world see here. Among other impressions solicited during the interview, Guy Kawasaki also asked the question: “Which country has the best looking women?” The 206 expedition team offered the following verdict: “The eastern European countries definitely have some of the best women in the world.” May I suggest finishing reading this post before booking a trip?

The more money does not make one happier message is consistent with the “Easterlin’s paradox”, formulated by Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics, based on data collected from several dozen countries. This theory is not without opponents. Says sagely my main economic advisor (my son) “economics is not an exact science” (gasp!): ”one can always collect and analyze the data in ways that will support their personal beliefs.”

Happy Mattieu Ricard

Some refer to Matthieu Ricard as the “happiest man in the world” – apparently a scientific classification based on results of intensive brain clinical testing performed at the U of Wisconsin. He is actually a molecular biologist (Ph.D.) from Pasteur Institute, later turned Buddhist monk. Ricard says happiness is “life’s most important skill” so we all have to attempt to understand and define it and, thanks to our brain’s plasticity, we can all work to attain it or increase it further by training our brain to be happy– see his TED talk (funny Ricard should start it by mentioning a Coca Cola team being present on top of Everest, as evidence of globalization – a nowadays version of “shared experiences?”). He teaches us that happiness comes from inner serenity. Anger, jealousy, hated, or obsessive desire are detrimental to our and others happiness. Ricard illustrates the danger of basing our happiness on fleeting pleasures by reminding us that even the best things at some point lose their ability to make us happy, e.g., the first serving of chocolate cake is delicious, the second “no so much, the third is disgusting.” OK, that specific number may be debatable for some, but we can all get the point. Instead of focusing on the object of our positive or negative emotions, which result in reinforcing these every time, he advises we should instead focus on the emotion itself. Just like a menacing storm cloud when seen from up close, anger will prove to be just mist…

Possible option

Also mentioning chocolate’s relation to our happiness, Dan Gilbert, a professor of psychology from Harvard is “Exploring the frontiers of happiness” in another TED talk. In a simple experiment looking at perceptions of happiness, scientists gave subjects a bag of chips and asked them if they will be happy to eat them one minute later. They were, unless a box of chocolates was also in sight. So, while the intrinsic value of the chips, their taste or availability, did not change, their desirability – hence their ability to make those who were about to eat them happy – was eroded through the simplecomparison with the possible” (the subjects were not actually offered the option to eat some of those chocolates).  As Ricard had pointed out, this experiment also illustrated the relativity of the happiness based on appreciation of an object of desire. Furthermore, Gilbert says we are generally happier when we are not given the option to take a decision/change our mind (i.e., when we are stuck with a specific option), because we manage to convince ourselves that’s what we actually wanted, something he calls “synthetic happiness”. He describes it as a sort of “psychological immune system” we all have, which allows us to adapt to the environment, i.e., like what we have. See another talk where he elaborated on this notion. I can see where this phenomenon may explain a range of synthetic happiness in personal and collective situations when people are unaware of other potential options.

Less is more

On the relation between free choice and happiness, Barry Schwartz, another psychologist, also illustrates why having too many choices does not actually make us happier (The paradox of choice”). In such cases he says, facing the need to take decisions we get analysis paralysis. Schwartz states this is mostly a problem of affluent societies, “we don’t have freedom of choice, we have paralysis” (of decisions). Then, when comparing many options it’s easy to see all the attractive features of those we didn’t chose, and most times we end up regretting our choice and hence being less happy. Sounds very apropos to the current state of the health care bill? It seemed to me that this applies with a couple of major caveats: a) one should not know any better (indicated by Gilbert), b) one should be indecisive or risk-adverse. There is a reason for which some are leaders and the others are happy to follow. According to Barry Schwartz, the secret of happiness is to “Lower expectations.”  I’d add: if you can’t make a decision, be happy with what someone else you trust had decided for you! In any case, the conclusion of all these potential comparison studies reminded me of the old song: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you are with”… Is visiting former Eastern bloc countries still one of your 2011 resolutions?

Ok, getting us thinking about the subject of choices and decisions that can make us happy seems a good pause point and a premise for a future post of New Year resolutions.

What makes you happy?

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Isn’t it time we flipped around the old ‘divide and impera’ (‘divide and conquer’) strategy attributed to the Romans and used for centuries to assert dominance? (The correct Latin term for “unite” might be “iungo”, but you get my gist). While the strategy has pretty effectively helped many generals and emperors take over large pieces of our world’s map, I am proposing that it is also the single most important reason for which most major empires have ultimately failed, being reduced to history book chapters or precious relics needing the controlled environment of museums to survive… This should not remain a history book story, but a living lesson for today’s world.

Now, fast forward to what is happening in the pharmaceutical industry today, where several companies that have dominated the world of pharmaceuticals, not unlike the great empires with their own achievements, territorial claims and peculiar corporate cultures are marching toward the “patent cliff”. The causes for what I believe is essentially a pharma innovation problem could fill in many posts. The current pharma model is increasingly more analyzed and scrutinized and thought to be unsustainable. Every day brings new stories that have created for me the vision of  a pharma’s “python phase”. To feed their draining pipelines, many companies ingest and digest consecutive boluses, M&A, expansions and cuts, which constantly inflate and deflate their bodies. What I decided to do here is to simply summarize how observations I made from a completely different situation – to me, a great way to learn! – may hold clues about other powerful strategies to survive life-or-death challenges.

I have recently learned about the practical and harmonious solution to survive the extreme challenge of the frigid waters in the Bay area during my recent visit at the Dolphin Club, a swimming and boating club in San Francisco. I have already raved elsewhere (Sports-inspired life and business lessons) about my admiration for its members who challenge the frigid open waters of the bay. If I had to summarize in only two points what was needed to survive those waters from an individual perspective, it would have to be: 1) cross-training and 2)… being “Zen”! But I also learned fascinating things about the strategy that constitutes the basis of the club and about its inner functioning from Reuben Hechanova, the current boat captain and upcoming 2011 president of the club. Everybody has to share learnings such as hypothermia classes and to regularly work together to maintain the wooden boats, even if they are not rowing them, as one day they may save their life. While touring the club one of the returning rowers reported to Reuben having had a “fantastic” row! “I had the opportunity to save a swimmer who was beginning to experience hypothermia”. These people not only share the waters (politely giving way), but they closely collaborate to successfully conquer them. For instance, I learned that for long swims, the club members move in a well-orchestrated formation, again reminiscent of the Roman’s tactics, with the swimmers in the middle surrounded by small boats, while all being flaked by the bigger wooden boats protecting from them from the potential impact of passing tankers and being ready to take back to safety anyone succumbing to hypothermia. In my many years as a rower, I had never come across such tight symbiotic collaboration between swimmers and boaters. I believe the reason is that I do not know of any other place that chose to deal with such an extreme challenge: normally rowing clubs have rules that require members to stop operating when the water temperature gets too low to be comfortable for swimming (to prevent hypothermia in case the rower accidentally falls into the water). Most outdoor swimming facilities close even earlier in the year! But, what is one to do in San Francisco, where the temperature of the Bay waters is never warm enough for most people to comfortably swim in it? Here, some people choose to jump into frigid waters and seem to love it, but not before having a survival strategy in place that capitalizes on the close, symbiotic, collaboration between rowers and swimmers. Rowers need to be able to withstand swimming if needed, swimmers need to be able to rely on or become rowers should one need to be saved from hypothermia.

Just had a great row... saving a swimmer!

So here are the three main points I derived from my recent visit about how collaborations may work for survival:

1. Goal/Need to conquer the same domain/major challenge, e.g., the frigid open waters.

2. Have complementary strengths: some are experts at moving inside the water, some over it.

3. Should share enough trust, knowledge, and capabilities to be able (and willing) to jump to the rescue or even into the other’s shoes, in this case, at the drop of an oar!

Also based in San Francisco is the UCSF. Last week, a press release announced a major common effort with Pfizer, which is expected to lose exclusivity for world’s largest ever earning drug, Lipitor, in exactly one year from now . The waters below that patent cliff might be very frigid indeed! We applaud this trend, it may produce some of the greatest example of ‘unite and impera’ our common global challenge: developing new therapeutics to address the unmet medical need. Let’s see, do the other, sports-inspired lessons apply? Do the two partners have different strengths? Check: academia excels at the “fuzzy” innovative front end of life science discoveries, while pharma’s strength is the late stage development and commercialization of therapies.

And, how about the third lesson: How much do pharma and academia share in terms of trust, knowledge, and capabilities? More and more facilities that are appropriate for drug development are becoming available, either “for hire”, being used by or built for academia’s and other self starters’ use. Mind you, several have been deserted specifically due to pharma’s budget cuts, including Pfizer’s own site demise in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and many are operated via new government programs. Do I dare say the major lasting dividing problem remains the lack of trust and knowledge sharing, not only of intellectual property (IP) per-se, but even that of common “know how” of drug development. A better shared understanding of “what” and “how” to develop a new medicine will only increase our common ability to conquer diseases. This knowledge, “as good as gold”, could be as enabling as the precious coins made of it, or, if not shared, will remain as elusive as the buried treasures of a lost pharma empire.

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A logical presentation of arguments, be it a business or personal plan or a scientific lecture, usually contains responses to “why,” “what,” “how,” and possibly “who” and “when”. The most thought provoking idea I got from the webinar on analytics for driving performance (hosted by the Pharmaceutical Executive ), suggested by Charlotte Sibley, was to consider that “what” could actually come in three flavors: “what,” “so what,” “now what.” 

Indeed, I could immediately relate each of these “what”-s not only with different time frames (past, present, and future), but also with a different tendency, intent, and capability needed to answer it, possibly along the lines: 

  • What have/are we doing?” The question is related to a preference to be introspective and the correct answer relies on the capacity to be analytical
  • So what if we did it this way??” (Shouldn’t we continue to do it the same way?), Asking and answering the follow-up question requires an added willingness to judiciously pursue exploring the answer to the initial “what”
  •  “Now what should we do next???” (Could we do it better?) Asking this question requires the willingness to be objective about the findings and to entertain new ideas and ways to accomplish them.

From experience, the first “what” is the one most frequently asked and pursued, and most science and business operations have good capabilities or at least a pretty good idea about how they could obtain the answers. Asking the second and third questions requires courage especially in a larger organization. Being able to answer the “now what” question requires vision and leadership, and actualizing it is the hardest. This is probably why many either “don’t get it” or prefer to not even ask such question. While all three questions are needed, answering the third one is how innovation is born

So, which “what” is your organization’s biggest challenge?

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The post was triggered by reading about the concept put forward by AM Shneider proposing that the evolution of science depends on being driven by four main “flavors” of scientists  http://bit.ly/cBQoTV.

The first scientist personality style is very much the “big picture” type, someone able to see a pattern where others had not, seeking new concepts without much concern about clarifying all the details or being afraid to make mistakes. A very useful quality of such scientists is not being prone to giving up easily in face of regular criticism for their out-of-the-box ideas. The second scientist type, usually the closest collaborator of the first, is essential in “translating” the fuzzy-ness of the initial idea into doable experiments, many times spearheading the invention of new techniques that allow carrying out the first experiments needed to test a new hypothesis. The third type of scientist – usually associated with the next stage needed for the development of a new scientific area – is more methodical, going after the thorough testing of the initial hypothesis, then asking more questions and deriving follow-up hypotheses. Finally, the fourth, most methodical, type of scientists obtain a lot of data, many times have encyclopedic knowledge of previous research, like to chronicle discoveries, but rarely produce some themselves.

This scientist type classification might be an oversimplification, but I think serves the higher purpose to highlight that ALL these four types offering different abilities and using different styles have been needed to create scientific knowledge and to move any field forward. I.e., new concepts cannot see the light of the day without having scientists who challenge the status-quo and are persistent at it, neither could we have gotten it “right” unless other scientists did not challenge and find ways to test such early concepts.

I understand Shneider’s attempt at classification was found controversial by some. As a scientist, I like assessing new hypotheses in general and such I found his idea intriguing (apparently I’m not so much bothered about lack of details or potential specific exemptions!), which in turn triggered my thinking on how it may be tested, and I willing to immediately volunteer myself as a first test subject. I was even able to see where I might fit into his classification. Also, I could continue to “assign” types to many of the people I have worked with in various stages in my scientific life, although most of us likely display a combination of some of these four types. I could then extend the same paradigm to characterize the overall “personality” of a lab or an institution in which I had worked, and even was able to gauge how the group personality had evolved as a function of it ratio of scientists representing various types, due to the turn-over characteristic to most academic and scientific labs in general.

A main reason for which I found the article interesting is my increasing interest in understanding what the best ways are to foster professional interactions between people with different thinking/personality styles.  After being part of, and leading several different scientific and other professional teams, I believe the most productive – and the most fun! – are the ones combining various professional expertise, diverse thinking and work styles, such as those possibly described for scientists by Shneider. However, working with a very diverse team is not without challenges, thus it is very important to not only fully understand our own perspective, but gain insight also how we could better mesh it with others to leverage the overall team performance. While classifications may upset some people, I think there are many precedent systems, some widely used to help identify one’s work style, personality, aptitudes, etc. (e.g., Myers Briggs), see a description of some at http://bit.ly/AefdT I myself took a few of these, and while many “findings” were merely confirming my own impression of myself, I found the most useful insights were gained about how to best interact with others with very different style.

I currently suggest that there should be an active effort to share this type of “personal” information that could be used to put together and run highly functional professional teams that take advantage of diversity.

What do you think of such classifications, could you identify yourself with any of the styles? Could be this a way to optimize interactions with very different people?

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Personally I firmly believe that achieving creativity and innovation in science and beyond requires diversity… of thought! If you agree with this statement, let’s see if I can maintain your attention (I know, merely hearing – again – the ‘Diversity’ word might have turned you off!)

From my experience, most of us are not intentionally biased, yet in the same time not immune to the various cultural influences that have shaped our choices, including whom we feel “comfortable” associating with in our personal and professional relationships, or whom we might subconsciously stereotype or avoid. Also from experience, the best way to “cure” this is to have the opportunity to interact directly and learn first-hand from people who are different, then, by engaging in a more sustained and purposeful interactions with those with whom we discover common interests – which in my experience always had a positively innovative effect on what ever problem was at hand. To get started, one can always find at least one common denominator with almost anybody else on this planet: whether it is some of the shared personal or professional experiences or interests, stage in life or career, common acquaintances, hobbies, etc. I can always talk to other parents about our kids, other scientists about their own experiments, or anybody about countries they live(d) in and I might have been fortunate to visit, etc., etc.

Let’s try to define diversity. Statistics related to diversity usually capture data in terms of the “visible” (explicit) differences between people, e.g., gender, race, ethnic background, orientation, so this is what we have to rely on in terms of citing numbers. While these characteristics constitute a strong basis for diversity, i.e., people with different life and educational experiences may be likely to think, be motivated and act differently, I will however submit that these do not tell the whole story. Personality traits also play a major role, e.g., some of us are more creative or more analytical, “big picture” or micromanager type, while other are more directive or sensitive, direct or indirect, etc. So while we might look very different we might think alike, or might look very similar but have a very different perspective and approach to problem solving. These characteristics, I believe very important in shaping interactions and results, remain less acknowledged probably because they are more difficult to measure (assess and capture). However, making a conscious effort to engage people who represent several of these is important in creating a strong innovative team characterized by diversity of thought! My favorite kind of “constructive interference“…

Coming back to statistics, recent numbers provide evidence that while the situation might be slightly improving, gaps continue to exist between the demographics of talent diversity both in the USA and all over the world, and the higher in the hierarchy the less of it. These differences are true both in academia and in the industry (see list of references, incl. articles from “The New York Times” and “The Economist” and several statistics). One of the top reasons identified for the gap is the lack of role models, i.e. having in senior/high-profile positions people with whom various minorities could identify themselves. Seems to me this is a typical “chicken and the egg” type of problem: can’t attract/groom diverse people unless they can have access to role models, and you can’t have role models unless you had groomed or attracted them to join… How could this diversity ball get rolling???

Three main avenues could be explored for finding “cures” for this potential issue:

  1. Official/Institutional initiatives: aimed at designing programs and allocating funds for education and operational support
  2. Grass roots initiatives: creating “spontaneous” support networks, that provide a critical mass
  3. Personal initiatives: “upstart” individuals willing to get started “alone”, learn all the hard lessons and then pass on the learnings to willing newer recruits.

Diversity is a wast subject so I will try to focus on just one of the facets captured by statistics and recently highlighted in a few articles, likely because it is still March the “women’s history month”. Here are some published and personal experiences related to the situation of women in the work place.

  1. In the category of “official” initiatives,The New York Times” writes about the current status of women faculty at Harvard, which had attracted a lot of attention not too long ago due to the remarks of then president Larry Summers who said: “there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude,” which he said are reinforced by “lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” By making this single comment, Summers helped with the status of women at Harvard more than could ever dreamed of! He single handedly brought so much public scrutiny that upon his resignation, Harvard appointed their first woman president (Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust) and instituted programs aimed at increasing representation of women faculty, specifically in previously seriously underrepresented scientific and engineering departments (for more details see original reference, below). The rest of academia and the private sector are not doing much better, especially in terms of women representation at the higher levels (see statistics for USA and Europe). In the USA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is prohibiting employment discrimination, however this is not universally applicable (see link for details). European countries have similar programs and have been passing additional related laws that aim at the next level of employment equity, including mandating that 40% of the corporate board membership be female. An article recently published in “The Economist” points out these measures would address the symptom but not the cause: not enough professional women to choose from for leadership positions! The article emphasizes that the best way to ensure an increase in the number of women on boards is to take steps to enable access of more women to the right experiences down on the corporate ladder. As with everything else, the human “talent pipeline” needs to be strong to generate a great output. My personal view on such initiatives is the while very useful to “keep us honest” and provide financial incentives and support, they are many times not very popular, especially with those who can not identify with the need and or the potential bias.
  2. The “grass roots” networks are by contrast those people choose to create and support. A truly great support system is created by people who are “like” and “unlike”, whether in terms of personal or professional characteristics (real diversity!) but are willing to understand, learn to appreciate differences and help widely. A person “like” me is able to share with me similar experiences, their “pain” and their tried strategies and successful solutions. “Unlike” people and professionals can help me understand the others’ perspectives and approaches. These represent a great opportunity for all of us to prove we are not biased. Such support networks can provide access to information via various sources (the best is directly from willing mentors!!) but also connect individuals with other education and work opportunities, including identification of collaborators. Also from personal experiences, the best mentors were those whom I had personally identified and approached for help, not the ones who have been “designated” to me via official programs.  In an effort to create support opportunities, I have startedMy Lab Your Lab” , a global online scientist professional community whose essential mission is to enable member-driven support. We encourage our members to reach out to seek and offer assistance from and to all.
  3. In the personal support category, I include individuals who have the courage to join work teams which are constituted from essentially different people to learn how to “survive” and actually thrive among them – diversity goes both ways! These individuals can become agents of change and the heart of the talent diversity snowball that allows it to form and get bigger… I think this works best when they voluntarily assume that role, because it is not an easy thing to do, requiring courage, extra time and effort, potentially at the expense of other professional goals. However, rewards could be great both for the person and the work place that facilitates such efforts. This is a very important point: the work environment needs to be supportive. No matter how accomplished and willing to help, such individual efforts will lead nowhere, just as the soil needs to be prepared, or else even the most exceptional seed will not survive.

One of my proudest contribution to diversity is related to my experience as a female and “biomedical” (medicine) faculty member joining a graduate program at the Georgia Institute of Technology: 100% male and 100% engineering. I think it helped that I am generally “gender blind” myself in work situations and I had been already operating for several years in another male dominated field, the world of academic cardiology. Yet, the first thing I thought of (because it was so obvious!!) and articulated to the people who had hired me was: “Next I will help you recruit some great female faculty”. Indeed they were on board with it, and together we proceeded to attract and hire two more women. Within a couple of years we became the “go to” place for female graduate biomedical engineering candidates, to the point where by the time I moved several years later, the student graduating class was 100 % (!) female. When asked why they chose Georgia Tech over other potentially more established programs, our graduate female students said that seeing several female faculty in the program helped them envision the possibility of academic success and increased their confidence that they would be able to relate if needed. Our ‘girls’ did not turn out to actually request or need much gender-specific help from us, the mere existence of female faculty had worked! My take home lesson was that it was worth taking the risk to be the first “one of a kind,” and getting involved in supporting efforts to attract and build a basis for more diversity which in turn engendered positive change and innovation.

So, several ways we can all get this ball rolling!

References:
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission http://www.eeoc.gov/employers/index.cfm
Lewin, T: “Women Making Gains on Faculty at Harvard”, The New Your times, March 13, 2010 http://nyti.ms/9QZyyX
Schumpeter: “Skirting the issue: Imposing quotas for women in boardrooms tackles a symptom of discrimination, not the cause” The Economist, March 11,m 2010 http://bit.ly/9rs8VA
EUR (2009) She figures 2009: Statistics and Indicators on Gender Equality in Science http://bit.ly/4QWnk5. EUR 23856 EN EUR 23856 EN (160 p.)
Leadley J (2009) Women in US academic medicine: Statistics and Benchmarking Report 2008-2009 http://bit.ly/8mB3e6. (34 p.)
AWIS (The Association of Women in Science) web page with links to various data sets http://bit.ly/97O2nF
“The Scientist” salary survey by gender and ethnicity http://bit.ly/d81RKP

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What do Leningrad, cowboys, a Finnish rock band, and the Red Army Choir have in common? They perform together… “Sweet Home Alabama!!!”

OK, this might sound like something I could have made up after having too much eggnog this holiday season, but no, you can check it out for yourself. I’ll venture to say this is the most edgy and innovative interpretation of the old favorite.  The Finish band that calls itself the “Leningrad cowboys” obviously increased its appeal (and credentials?) compared to their earlier interpretation by adding to the mix another unexpected ingredient: the Red Army choir singing in English, vigorously and it seems in the same time nostalgically (although the song might have been the only reason for which many of the singers first heard about Alabama).  While the musical intersection of all these apparently disparate entities might not be something all of us think as great, courtesy of YouTube, at the time I am writing this 2,254,837 people saw the video which is rated as a perfect five star. The masses have spoken!

On my side this discovery strangely connected with the advice received this week from a Nordstrom customer representative: “if you can rock it, go for it!” after I had been contemplating – for some time – buying something that would normally land outside my comfort zone. I tried to make up my mind by briefly positioning the article in front of me – as you can do these days with some online retailers that have embraced “augmented reality” – and glancing in one of those large mirrors between racks. While doing this two separate times, several customers passing by exclaimed: “wow, that really looks good on you!” Maybe they were just trying to be nice, but getting the “independent” encouragement, made me believe that I might be able to “rock it.” I still have to test that idea by actually wearing the item this season… By the way, this experience also indicated to me that the ability to share the result of virtually trying stuff on is a feature that would be tremendously popular (online retailers might want to take note!).

Meanwhile, I thought that the shopping assistant’s “advice” might be just the way we need to start thinking more often in many other areas of our life to step out of our daily boxes. Think how to “rock it” in work-related endeavors, unleashing a remarkably innovative project, maybe? Many times the only limitation is that mental barrier we have created for ourselves. Our analytical brains are very good at creating “acceptable” frameworks for our thinking and behavior, providing all the reasons for which something might fail, including that it just may not fit with what is expected… How many times did you hear: “this is not how we do things around here?” So, here is another way to take a good tally: Do you need to innovate? If successful, can you envision a positive impact of your plan? Are you committed to doing what it takes to bring it to fruition? Are you (physically/mentally) capable of doing it? Then, finally… Why not???

The Finish band and the Red Army choir rocked it in front of huge enthusiastic crowds online and off line. More and more people take their chance – publicly – on testing their ability on TV and many more are watching them religiously. So, are you still a “wall flower,” looking sadly at the dance floor wondering why nobody can see that you can and would like to dance, or are you simply worried about looking out of place? Here is a suggestion for us in 2010: if we THINK we can dance, let’s go for it! At least, we will not forever wonder “what if I tried?” Some of us will get the big prize. It might even be you, but you’ll never know unless you go for it!

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Agh, the lists are everywhere! These days you can’t find much to read that had not  been already organized that way. Most famous business gurus write books that are basically expanded lists that sell off the shelves, bloggers have numbered tips for everything. There are even friendly self-help materials that list all the great reasons for which you should present all you thoughts in the form of… well, lists!  No wonder, since great opinion leaders such as Guy Kawasaki tell us that writing lists is “an art” and for him this is the way to get him to read… I am getting worried: reading material that had not been already organized in a list might quickly become a “dying art“!

So, I feel compelled to speak up on behalf of those of us who might think this way. OK, I like reading lists – sometimes! For instance, this one that ranks the top five traits respondents found when asked to “decode leadership”. But besides dealing with categories that were ranked based one some sort of a quantitative analysis (e.g., “Top 10 cities for innovation”), or some logical successive action steps I might need to take to accomplish a very specific task, my poor brain, not very trained to remember things, is getting so confused these days trying to store and then quickly name or even remember how many things I needed to do to… save the world? innovate? get venture money? lose my belly flab in less than 2 weeks? And what were the only three steps I was supposed to take to become a proficient piano player?

Sometime this type of organization might actually be hard to my kind of mind! I do not think that everything can logically be listed, nor do I want to only read those things that can be… Should you, inspired blogger, try to make it easy for me by trying very hard to put together a list, please… don’t! Consider that while your thoughts on the subject might really get me thinking or fired up to spring into action, your conclusions might not make sense to me! Why do you want me to think that there are only ‘ten things’ I have to do to achieve X? Your specific list might not fit my intended use, or your implication that you hold the “definitive” truth in the matter might not sit well with some of us… Something else worth considering for those who like to put together “top 10”- types lists.  Brain researchers tell us that the longest sequence a normal person can recall on the fly contains about seven items – which might explain the popularity of that size group? The magnificent seven, and as many dwarfs, samurai, wonders of the world, deadly sins, seas, habits of… OK, better stop here, maybe there were more, I just cannot remember the rest!

Let me also share that there are people like me who go to the supermarket with a short shopping list: “milk, bread, fruit, something to cook for dinner” (basic drop dead lists), then still leave with a cart full of a jumble of fresh stuff, sticking on all sides – not quite clear what dinner will look and taste like – and with extra stuff for the next dinner(s), some chocolate, and maybe forgot to get the milk… OK, I know, I was told before, I should not shop for food when I am hungry: I might be tempted to make rush decisions, buy more than I need, etc., etc. Yet, consider that instead of immediately satiating my hunger by feeding from an orderly stack of boxes and cans of pre-cooked food, I am willing to postpone instant gratification to spend some time in the kitchen preparing a dinner like no other:

1.      not because I am the greatest chef, but

2.       because I enjoy getting involved in what I eat, and

3.       I like to surprise myself and anybody who dares to join.

Do you get my gist, Guy? lists can be usually formulated but might be less inspired than the idea behind them. And, for some of us, lists have limited use. Why make the list an ultimate goal? I, for one, have trouble remembering how many essential truths/definitive ways to do something someone else said there were… except those I could hum…. “mmmm… 50 ways to leave your lover….”

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What is your leadership style? What is your boss’s style? I suggest you stop for a moment before going on reading my thoughts on the subject and do the following: close your eyes and think of three great leaders you admire most. Write down whom ever comes to mind first, we’ll come back to this later.

The other day I met a very interesting guy. By his own account he is a “hard-driving very outcome-oriented guy.”  I was indeed thoroughly impressed with his many diverse professional and personal achievements. Wow! He was very inquisitive, told me that he really “loves people” and to hear what they are doing, so he naturally asked about my achievements. Interestingly, although I am proud of them and I had thought about myself as a very strong, determined and outcome-oriented person (impression expressed by others about me many times), in that very moment wondered “did I have anything he could see even remotely matching his triumphs?” Not surprisingly he did not seem that impressed with my first shot at it. Upon further probing, he came back with a diagnostic for my “problem”: I am not good at presenting and demanding what he thought I “rightfully deserve,” and went on to tell me how I SHOULD demand it. I was impressed, he had great insights, the speed at which he diagnosed and solved my problem was dizzying, and his approach was likely to be very effective. The mirror he held almost instantly helped me learn something about myself. I realized I have been very good at proving myself over and over again achieving any of the seemingly impossible tasks I had chosen to tackle, but I had not been good at asking for upfront investments in my efforts before undertaking these challenges. I have always assumed that people will be able to appreciate the effort and proven success, and they will then be willing to further invest in me and my work. He told me that was not the way it usually works (yeah, I had noticed!) and that I needed to always announce “my price” up front. He even told me exactly what and how (“you need to lower your voice!”) I should say it.  Upon my spontaneous reaction to the style that does not come naturally to me, he went so far to say I was a “wimp”, and then added I needed to make it clear every time in the beginning of discussion that my proposition was a “take it or leave it” type. In fact, I realized then from his account that all his highlighted successes seemingly had been pre-ambled with this kind of offer to his prospective sponsors. He had been clearly successful in using it.

I walked away from our meeting convinced this method I had never tried was extremely efficient. It was not easy to hear his opinion about my deficiency, but being always on the lookout for learning new ways to solve problems and ways to better myself, I resolved to try it! I envisioned my next important conversation and me saying the words I was told to say… My brain confirmed it was a smart thing to do, but at the same time could not put back the various words indicated into sentences that sounded as elegantly incisive or convincing as when he had said them. I thought I must be dyslexic or maybe my somewhat limited command of the English language (as my fourth) kicked in… After trying again it dawned on me: I probably have had both problems, plus… it just wasn’t me! Some may love and some may hate my “style”, but this is what makes me, me. Yes, I could have probably obtained greater rewards or attained higher positions, but I can’t imagine becoming a different person altogether and still being able to communicate with and keep engaged the same dear friends, allies, and some “fans” I have had for years.  And with whom – or what – would I replace them? With people wowed by my achievements or subdued by my will, or maybe with well deserved ”rewards”… money, power??? And then I realized that even if I were successful in employing the ‘all or nothing’ dictatorial approach, the gained exchange would not appeal to me. So, I resolved that I needed to make sure I will never again completely forego the upfront discussion about ‘what’ would it take to have me take on a new challenge, but we are all different, so I’ll do it my way.

Now, back to you! I offered this preamble also to give you the time to come up with three names… Have you picked three leaders you admire most yet? Last chance! I promise it will help you a great deal with understanding yourself. This simple exercise asking me to focus on who I admired most has helped me discover what I value most and how I relate to people. Assuming that you have come up with three names, let’s think what they may reveal.

Here are what I think of as the three main categories of leadership styles: dictators, generals, and gurus.  I will succinctly try to define these categories to help you think ‘which leader type are you?’ and ‘what style do you prefer when led?’ I came up with the following summaries of the value proposition from their three perspectives and how they may relate to people they lead and with other leader types:

  • Dictator: “Take it or leave it! By the way: you WILL do it!” Dictators are sole decision-oriented leaders, they lead by “Fiat!” (“my way or the highway,” they can’t even imagine some else might have a better solution). They seek absolute power and rich material rewards. Dictators might fancy themselves as loved, but in fact they don’t care much about what ”troops” or “generals” think of them and, strangely, they seem to fear “gurus”…  So they send “troops” and generals to “war”, and “gurus” into exile (or worse).
  • General: “Take it, don’t leave it, I’ll lead you through”. Generals are action-oriented leaders, they lead by strategizing and charging in front of troops gathered behind them. Generals enjoy the power and material rewards, but what they seek most is glory, an interesting combination of delivering actual success and being perceived as a great leader. They have “skin in the game” and they know they can’t win without the help of others! So, good generals seek to earn the respect and love of their backing and seek the help and counsel of allies and advisors, including gurus.
  • Guru: “You don’t have to take it, but I’ll show you how it’s good for you.”  Gurus are thought leaders, they draw people to them by envisioning and by example, having the courage to dream, speak, and act before having the backing of any constituency…. Pure gurus are throwing their whole self and life into their truth or vision of the future and are willing to die for it, but expect no personal material or power rewards, rather seek enlightenment and the opportunity to help by sharing it with the “troops” and generals. Dictators are powerless in ordering gurus around or “buying” their support, and hence fear them. Gurus better stay away from dictators’ wrath… Interestingly, great gurus have attained eternal glory beyond that of most successful generals of their day. As they function best in the future, gurus’ glory usually grows with time and frequently only posthumously.

Do these ring any bells, do you recognize anybody: you, your CEO? We are all very complex, it would be amiss if I didn’t clarify that many leaders combine to some extent characteristics of the three “types”. There is no doubt in my mind that there are sophisticated or even charismatic dictators, visionary generals, as well as rather effective gurus… I propose that the best leaders are those who have the ability to flex their style to best match the circumstances, sensing and employing in each situation the most effective overall mix.  For instance, pure guru types will likely not be effective in the middle of a reorganization, but are essential in foreseeing the need for it and formulating its goals. Innovation requires a multifaceted leader or at least an enlightened one who will consult gurus (or be one themselves), be dictatorial when absolutely necessary, and overall lead like a great general for the implementation of a great strategy. Similarly, the “troops” vary in their preference of leaders: some prefer to be told what to do and how to do it, some perform at their best when inspired by leaders who only outline and/or allow possibilities. Besides knowing themselves, great leaders understand well their troops and their battles.

I feel that it’s only fair that I share with you the top three choices I made when given only two minutes during leadership training. I think this simple and very effective exercise has helped me a lot. The short time allowed seems important to me to reveal the “gut-reaction” type personal choices (information had been processed but yet unaltered by rationalization). Hearing from others what may sound as astonishing choices was also very telling. Suffice to say that after I had announced my three: Leonardo da Vinci, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi, a person, who had picked Alexander the Great, Napoleon and… Hitler (!!! “he was charismatic???”) said to me that I obviously did not understand our assignment: the people I had chosen were obviously “not actual leaders” (“whom did they ever lead ?!?” he asked me)

“Would you please tolerate me, dictator… can you imagine that I actually prefer the guru’s leadership style?”

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I just returned from the NIH where I was invited to lecture on translating science into therapies. I had presented my science there before and I was not quite sure how interesting they might find my broader perspective, which I had entitled: “The long course from ‘the Aha!’ to cures: can we do better – together?“

The standing room only audience provided a first clue that emphasis is evolving at the NIH… During the Q&A and in talking individually to several people, I could sense their intense interest and excitement regarding the many challenges – and opportunities – created by the translation of basic science into positive health outcomes. Several independently pointed out that Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., took no break from being confirmed to making his first appearance as the new NIH chief where he announced what he hoped to accomplish during his term. The overall underlying message was clear: no time to spare!

For those relying mainly on the funding that comes from the NIH to carry on science, it is very important to understand what the change at the NIH helm might mean for its future directions and priorities to increase chances of successful funding. In the bigger picture, all of us will be affected as the NIH-sponsored research is a major – if not the major – source for the new ideas that become one day life saving treatments. I dare to say that the success of these ideas is in no small measure due to the fact that the NIH, throughout various administrations (maybe in spite of?), has been one of the original and perennial implementers of innovation models, yet not even themselves might think of it that way. For instance, the NIH has a signature initiative called an “RFA” (requests for applications), where they invite independent researchers to submit proposals related to specific scientific and health questions, and they fund the winners. Isn’t this a classic case of “crowd-sourcing”, implemented way before the term was coined? The NIH also has an “RFP” (request for proposals) mechanism by which they contract projects with the various independent winners and create the network needed to sustain the project – isn’t that what is called elsewhere “out-sourcing” and “open innovation”?

I could not find a script of Collins’ speech, but I watched it for you! Here is a short run down of what he announced as his top 5 priorities for the NIH during his term:

  1. Apply new high throughput (“comprehensive”) technologies (e.g., nanotechnologies, genome wide-scans, proteomics) to understand fundamental biology questions as well as causes for different diseases.
  2. Emphasize translation of basic sciences into treatments, making “discoveries amenable for public benefit”
  3. Put science to work for the benefit of the heath care reform: “inform the conversation based on scientific evidence not on prejudice” by performing comparative effectiveness studies (e.g., study effect of life style changes vs. therapies for treatment of diabetes)
  4. Put greater focus on global health, including AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other major diseases in developing countries, by working with them in research and helping them develop their own capabilities
  5. Reinvigorate the biomedical research enterprise by making sure that funds are available to support younger investigators, increase work force diversity, encourage risk taking and innovation.  

I for one, cannot but applaud and embrace all these goals. Even as an academic researcher, I have always sought to “begin with the end in mind”, or how I like to refer to it “going back to the future”. In my case, this means starting with examining the real life case (the patient) to formulate the questions to take back to the lab for study in detail, increasing the chance that the answers from our research would be used to alter for the better the patient’s health in future

Some of the more hard core basic researchers might not entirely feel comfortable with the emphasis on translation. I agree that there is a fundamental need for fundamental research: the pursuit of questions that are so “out there” that no one can really tell where they might lead us or what they might connect with. Yet, after putting a lot of bright dots on… the blue sky, some need to concentrate on seeing patterns and be able to connect them, yet others will need to start figuring out how we might touch upon the new dots and patterns. I see the issue of translating science not as an imposition on fundamental research, but as an invitation to an open intellectual dialogue between basic, applied and clinical scientists, as well as product developers, regulators, and the public, where all can contribute with their own proficiency: the “constructive interference” effect. It is still not easy most of the times, as many places still operate based on narrow definitions of expertise and make make others feel as strangers in a stranger land. Thus, making scientific innovation happen for the benefit of humankind will require skilled, open-minded, and maybe fearless translators who can make sense of various intellectual languages and lands

Here is a list of related links:

Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., inaugural address to the NIH

About Translational research

The NIH Overview

In Wikipedia

Nature Medicine: In the land of the monolingual

NIH Funding opportunities for translational research

NIH-RAID (Rapid Access to Interventional Development 

NIH Translational research meetings

The NIH Roadmap

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