THE RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Researchers, such as Angela Duckworth, have publicized the importance of “grit” in individual achievement. Grit is a constellation of attitudes and actions in the face of failure, including resilience (the ability to bounce back), a focused passion, and a persistent commitment to one's goals over the long term. To that definition, we should also add the capabilities of “agility,” which entails switching to alternative means to achieve those passions and goals when current avenues fail and seizing new opportunities as they arise, “learning” to persevere in the face of failure.
Researchers have begun to study the importance of this same constellation at the corporate level to explain organizational success. Weick and Sutcliffe described the characteristics of “high reliability organizations” (e.g., emergency room staff, flight deck crews on aircraft carriers, submariners, firefighters) that could rebound from adversity and adapt to forever-changing conditions to perform at a consistently high level. Such organizations focused on failures and learning from them, developed resilience by focusing on operating problems and deferring to the expertise of knowledge workers in the organization, and improvised solutions in the face of unexpected events.
Not all organizations are able or willing to adopt these characteristics. According to Weick and colleagues, firms that fail here tend to (a) emphasize structure and technology rather than process, (b) focus on macro-organizational and inter-organizational issues rather than on micro issues involving teams and groups, and (c) are concerned with fatalities rather than with lasting damage in other domains, such as reputation, legitimacy, and survival of the social entity (among others). It is also true to say that not all organizations with the right characteristics necessarily succeed, but this constellation of features we have described is associated with an increased probability of long-run survival and success.
This chapter provides a case study consistent with the hypothesis that the presence of such capabilities can promote (though not guarantee) success in biotechnology companies. As an industry that engenders sky-high expectations yet experiences frequent scientific disappointments, biotechnology generally is unforgiving toward struggling new and growing companies. The discovery process for therapeutic drugs is unpredictable, carrying with it enormous capital requirements, and management teams rarely stay together long enough to see promising drug candidates all the way from discovery to commercialization.