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L’esprit de l’escalier – the spirit of the stairs. If I’m remembering correctly (from this handy guide), this wonderful French phrase refers to the clever or inspired comment you forgot to say at the relevant time, but remembered afterwards, as you were leaving and heading down the stairs.
We tend to see far too much of this phenomenon in biopharma (and likely other industries) – specifically, former executives who write thoughtful, insightful critiques of the industry – but only after they’ve retired from their positions of responsibility.
Example 1 – from a former pharma CEO, in an often-quoted HBR article:
“The leaders of major corporations including pharmaceuticals have incorrectly assumed that R&D was scalable, could be industrialized and could be driven by detailed metrics and automation. The grand result: a loss of personal accountability, transparency, and the passion of scientists in discovery and development.”
Example 2 – from a former pharma research head critiquing the approach big pharmas use to prioritize research projects (example taken from this recent, insightful Reuters article, but many other examples can be found in this ex-executive’s blog):
“Lobbing grenades after you’ve effectively left the fight behind seems a little convenient to me, and frankly, a little lame.”–David Shaywitz, M.D.
“When you’re doing market research, people are basing their responses and judgments on what’s known and not necessarily looking out of the box. The earlier you get in the discovery/development continuum, the less valuable I think it is.”
While it’s lovely to see these critical sentiments (and others), it’s also hard not feel a little gypped. This sound like just the sort of information that might be useful to guide the decisions of important corporate stakeholders – you know, like the CEO or the head of research. Lobbing grenades after you’ve effectively left the fight behind seems a little convenient to me, and frankly, a little lame.
It’s tough to climb any corporate ladder, and if you’ve stayed in the game long enough to have a seat at the table, then either you use that moment to try and effect change, or you strategically decide to hold your fire – but if so, it seems profoundly disingenuous to bust out the disruptive insight only after you are no longer in a position to actually do anything impactful about it.
What about the argument that large companies are too ossified for anyone to change the direction – so only external agitation can make a difference? Perhaps this is true, but it’s hard to imagine that a CEO or a head of research really has such a diminished voice. More likely, individuals in these positions make a calculated political decision at the time not to change things up too much – and it sure is sweet flying on the corporate jet.
To be sure – it’s great that former executives share the concerns they’ve developed over the course of their careers, and in theory enable others to benefit from their experiences (and hindsight). I appreciate the wisdom of all these ex-executives who’ve become bloggers, consultants, commentators, and speakers. Clap, clap.
But we should reserve our greatest admiration for the men and women still in the arena, who are willing to bet their careers on insights they believe in, and who are actively – and at risk – engaging in the good fight.
David Shaywitz is an adjunct scholar at AEI.
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