Are business schools educating for leadership?

September 27, 2009

Harvard Business School

Criticisms of Business schools have grown louder as the origins of the economic recession were analysed.

Over the last year or so there have been mounting criticisms of Business Schools, linked to the influence of some of the high-flying financial leaders who fell from grace during the credit crunch.

According to Yiannis Gabriel, in an article for Leadership journal the structure, ideology and ethos of MBA programmes are fundamentally opposed to an education of leaders … [more appropriate for] educating followers rather than leaders.

One interesting response came from Harvard Business School where students recently attempted to bring an ethical dimension into professional values espoused by MBAs.

The news encouraged me to dig out an unpublished note I had drafted while the Credit Crunch was still being set up by the exhuberent behaviours of bankers in the USA:

According to Della Bradshaw of the FT

Leadership became the hot topic in management education in 2001, following the terrorist attacks in the US. Almost every business school now has a leadership module on its MBA programme, as well as numerous short executive courses dedicated to the subject.

According to Mintzberg

Henry Mintzberg has won world-wide attention for his views on Business Schools. Henry believes they have lost their way – maybe they have never been on the right track.

One of his earliest influential ideas was the notion that much that passed for management was no more than the old managerialist notion of effective planning.

Essentially he had been pointing out way that creativity is a necessary component which has been largely ignored as a factor in effective management.

It is unsurprising that a call for action within the profession has come from within the student body rather than from the business institutions themselves. Naturally, the reaction may gain institutional support for pragmatic as well as for idealistic reasons. However, the mix of motives need not detract from the benefits to be gained if business leaders develop more awareness of the importance of an ethical stance in conducting their professional activities.


Leadership and the criticality of action learning

March 9, 2009
Linus Tunstrom

Linus Tunstrom

A seminar at the Revans Academy for Action Learning and Research explores how action learning sits alongside critical management theory. These topics have also attracted the interest of leadership researchers

The Seminar [March 31st 2009] hosted from Manchester Business School is one of a series which according to organizer Dr Elaine Claire explores

How action learning sits alongside related approaches to learning and development and brings together practitioners and scholars in debate and critique, in order to enhance understanding and action in the field. This particular seminar seeks to [explore] differences between action learning and critical management theory … some would argue that by its emphasis on empowerment of the learner, upon the development of critical questioning insight and through a focus upon facilitating individual, organisational and societal change, ALL action learning is critical! This is the starting point for the seminar ..

Action learning and Melvin Bragg

This poses a rich set of issues to be explored. It seems the kind of thing that would make a good topic for the wonderful BBC programme In Our Time, moderated for many years by Melvin Bragg.

Bragg’s approach is to take a richly intellectual topic and invite structured discussion from a small panel of leading authorities. (Over to you, Lord Bragg).

A few thoughts to add to the discussion

The seminar includes a contribution from Russ Vince who has earned a reputation in helping codify the enormous field of experiential learning.

Russ has also the unusual (unique?) title of Professor of Leadership and Change (at the University of Bath). So there may well be insights into yet another set of relationships between leadership, experiential learning and change.

An example of this, and an action-oriented one, can be found in the work of theatrical director Linus Tunström of Upsalla’s Stadsteater.

Linus Tunström

Tunström explained his leadership style at a recent creativity conference at Upsalla University. His career route into his current role includes a period as a film director whose work has been shown at Cannes. He has developed a leadership style which was always going to be one in which the actors would be invited to find their own voices and interpretations around his own broad vision of the work. It is a leadership style which seems to me quite compatible with trust-building (‘empowerment’?), discovery learning, and creative leadership.

The critical management and action learning workshop

This workshop also reaches out to another powerful social science concept, that of critical theory, which has a long-standing research group at Manchester organized by Dr Damian O’Doherty and Dr Damian Hodgson, who suggest that a good summary of the field of study can be found in the Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies edited by Alvesson, Bridgman and Willmott.

Professor John Hassard, also at Manchester Business School, has been a senior figure in the field for some years.

No doubt the seminar will also bring some participants up to speed with this increasingly influential approach for understanding the fundamental nature of knowledge.

Fallback strategies make for good governance. Or do they?

January 23, 2008

_42974117_stormtroopers_66pic.jpgThere have been several examples of fallback thinking in our UK leadership stories recently, including cases at The Royal Mail, The Treasury, and most recently at Liverpool Football club. We examine why developing a fallback strategy may be a matter of creative leadership

Every Military leader learns of the benefits of a fallback strategy. Lao Tse wrote of the merits of providing a fallback strategy for a defeated enemy, a golden bridge permitting an enemy to retreat thus avoiding the possible lose-lose outcomes of follow-up actions.

Business School cases are taught with a vocabulary of risk management, which is way of elevating fallback thinking to a management philosophy.

Engineers are familiar with the lugubrious message which passes for Murphy’s law, or Sod’s law (‘what might go wrong will go wrong’; ‘toast always falls with the buttered-side down and hitting the carpet’). Awareness helps them bear in mind what might be also called the worse case scenario.

So fallback thinking is always a good thing?

I am very much in favour of fallback thinking, but would like to explore its consequences a little more deeply.

Let’s agree that leaders benefit from facing up to unpleasant possibilities. It was the failure to face such realities that prompted Bob Woodward to label his work on the Bush Administration as an examination of a State of Denial. That example indicates the well-known human tendency to escapism, which can have serious consequences for leaders of all kinds. The Tavistock School and Clinic developed a whole social scientific model on such behaviours, which are related to the more popular concept Groupthink.

Then what’s the problem?

Real-life examples show that theory often fails to anticipate all the problems facing leaders in action. The most recent example is the case at Liverpool Football club and its American Owners.

Tony Barrett of the Liverpool Echo [Jan 14th 2008] broke the story.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett held a secret meeting with Jurgen Klinsmann to line him up as the next manager of Liverpool FC. Hicks today insisted the talks would not have resulted in the immediate dismissal of Rafael Benitez and that Klinsmann was only “an insurance policy.”
He told the [LIVERPOOL] ECHO: “We attempted to negotiate an option, as an insurance policy, to have him become manager if Rafa left for Real Madrid or other clubs that were rumoured in the UK press … Or in case our communication spiralled out of control for some reason.”

Sensible? I leave readers to decide. There was general consensus elsewhere by football commentators that the action had made things worse, and had undermined the position of the incumbent manager.

Then there’s the case of The Post Office, facing enormous challenges of change, and headed by a dynamic Chairman. Last year he was linked with stories of transferring his attentions to the possibility of becoming the new Chairman at Sainsburys. The government (at the time of Tony Blair’s premiership) drew up a fallback plan.

Robert Peston reported from unnamed sources that

The Government has appointed head hunters to find a new chairman. The search for a deputy chairman is regarded by some in government as insurance in case Mr Leighton decides to quit early. He is frustrated by ministers’ reluctance to transfer 20% of the business to Royal Mail staff.
“Allan Leighton is always threatening to resign and one day it might just happen” said a government source.

Insurance again.

I noted at the time

Suppose this is a game of three dimensional chess? Allen Leighton is leading the Government forces in a battle to implement its wishes. Those nasty forces resisting his attacks are led by the Union leaders. Leighton wants more help from the Government. He becomes powerful enough to be dangerous. What if he threatens to resign at the most telling moment to devote more time to other business interests? He has been associated with stories of his interest in acquiring Sainsbury’s for several years (and it seems the stories are coming to the boil again this month) … This is why it’s three dimensional chess.

Then there’s another recent story, concerning The Treasury’s fall back strategy of nationalizing Northern Rock. I argued that it was another example of a game of political chess.

… Mr Darling does not want to nationalize Northern Rock. Neither do the shareholders. But if The Chancellor can convince enough shareholders that he might be forced into a nationalization by their further opposition, it may help avoid the outcome none of the main players really wants.

Creative leadership issues

These recent cases suggest that leadership stories can be read and deconstructed in terms of the actions of those at the heart of the story to achieve goals, which might include actions to block the goals of others. In the vocabulary of creative leadership
the complex strategic ‘map’ can be explored as a series of desired actions or how to do’ statements. This will vary among stakeholders.

If we are examining the possible actions for the principals or owners, (be it Liverpool Football club or The Post Office) possible goals (How to ..) might be

‘How to protect my interests, if the leader quits’
Or ‘How to develop ‘insurance’ if the leader’ quits
Or ‘How to keep the leader in place’
Or ‘How to increase chances of a smooth leadership transition’
Or ‘How to have a back-up position’
Or ‘How to show [ ] that we are not bluffing.

The creative leader (according to this kind of approach) ‘searches widely and chooses wisely’. Searching widely avoids the trap of being locked into preconceptions. Choosing wisely commits to less obvious ideas and actions discovered in the search process.

Creativity is a Leader’s not-so-secret Weapon

November 18, 2007

convergence_jackson_pollock.jpgCreativity has always been a powerful attribute of successful leaders. This has become more obviously the case over the last few decades, as leaders are seen to be engaged in creating visions, strategies, products, designs, businesses, and even creative networks. Change involves creative individuals, teams, organizations, and clusters or communities

This post accompanies a presentation on creativity and leadership (fostering creativity)

Creativity has pervaded so many aspects of all our lives. It transcends business life, as it transforms it, and in many of its manifestations it can be linked with leadership.

Definitions, definitions

Like leadership, creativity has acquired a bucket-load of definitions. One explanations of their shared profusion is that both cut across a range of academic and practical domains, so that ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ definitions have not yet successfully been reconciled. (Will they ever be?)

However, in preparing this, I was somewhat encouraged to find myself able to condense down a lot of the definitions into two robust ones that serve to capture much of the variety. Borrowing from various sources, I offer the all-purpose general suggestion that:

‘Creativity is concerned with discovery processes leading to new and unexpectedly valuable ideas’.

The second suggestion is that creativity occurs when somneone is

‘Looking where all have looked, and seeing what no one has seen’.

Looking but not seeing

The looking and seeing definition is an old favourite of mine. It captures the received wisdom that a creative act for someone, a moment of insight, occurs because many others have looked but not seen. I seem to remember a quote from Lord Chesterfield who confided in a letter that ‘from a hayloft, a horse looks like a violin’. The violin/horse in the presentation illustrates the noble Lord’s insight.

More significantly, the history of creative discovery relates of numerous people who were the first to see something that subsequently established as true (or, in an even more philosophically complex description, ‘truly creative’).

From Archimedes to Alexander Fleming; from Newton, to Mme Curie; from the little boy who saw that the Emperor had no clothes, all have been hailed for their significant moments of insight.

Theories of creativity

The insight school of creativity is but one among various sub-sets within cognitive psychology. Humanistic psychologists have contributed self-actualizing and transcendent theories. Information scientists have offered data-processing models. From rather different directions, we have natural scientists taking an evolutionary stance, and creationists offering their own theological interpretations.

Creativity in action

I want move from more refined theory into creativity in action. In doing so, I borrow a neat taxonomy which I learned from the Hungarian scholar Istvan Magyari-Beck. Isvan proposed some years ago that a new discipline of creatology could be developed, which could be structured into levels of the individual, group, organization and culture.

At each level, different issues arise, although there remains an overriding practical concern that requires some theoretical grounding at each level: How might creativity be fostered?

The creative individual

Magyari-Beck indicated that most studies have been at the level of the creative individual. This was true in the 1980s, and is only marginally different today. One difference is acceptance (particularly through the impact of the work of Teresa Amabile) that creativity is essentially a socially-constructed phenomenon.

Another shift parallel one in leadership research. For as long as they had been studied, Leaders were considered exceptional individuals, with special inherent traits. Only around the 1960s did the trait view of the exceptional leader soften into the situational and contextual view. Even today, the leader as ‘somebody very special’ is a widely-held belief.

Likewise, the creative individual was for a long time considered to be inspired and gifted. Around the time leadership was taking on a more egalitarian hue, educationalists and humanistic psychologists were exploring ‘everyday creativity’. Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fromm and others introduced a wide audience to the notion that ‘we are all creative and have the capacity to achieve that potential’.

The creative group

The creative group has become the shock-force for organizational change. More and more non-routine tasks are conducted in projects. Project teams are expected to show creative skills while seeking goals or targets of the wider organization.

Tuckman’s celebrated four-stage model suggested that all teams develop and change, until they achieve the norm of an effective team work. Rickards & Moger and co-workers at Manchester wondered how teams might be able to outperform expected behaviors. Their answer was through creative efforts which broke through behavioural and structural barriers.

The Creative organization

The creative organization was the subject of one of the earliest texts on creativity. However, it took the rise of the so-called Creative Industries to accelerate interest in such institutional forms. Today, the largest players in the world of electronic, communication and entertainment technologies have exploded into economic and social importance.

Nevertheless, we do well to remember that creative organizations can compete successfully in what appears to be rather ill-favored origins. Toyota, and the Chinese multi-national Haier come to mind.

The Creative culture

And so we reach the highest level of complexity in Magyari-Beck’s taxonomy. His own country had been at one time a hotspot of creative culture. Hotspots from ancient cultural clusters in China, Mesopotamia, Athens, Paris moved to modern hotspots including Cambridge (England and New England), Silicon Valley, even, some say, ‘Madchester’.

Peter Kawalek and his team seem to be rescuing the creativity in Manchester from the Madness.

The still-controversial social scientist Richard Florida is mapping the creative hot spots of the world in increasingly in-depth studies.

To go more deeply

This brief voyage around the world of creativity leaves too many ports of call unvisited. I hope to collect the views of several audiences (including blog readers) which will lead to suggestions for other perspectives.

Why innovation leaders should be controlled schizophrenics

September 3, 2007

Innovation requires a special kind of leadership requiring high tolerance for ambiguities and paradox. Professor Jan Buijs of the University of Delft has examined the characteristics, describing them as requiring a behavior pattern akin to ‘controlled schizophrenia’.

Jan Buijs is not a psychiatrist. This makes his newest contribution to innovation theorizing doubly risky. He stands accused of crudely misrepresenting and perhaps belittling a serious clinical condition. He also stands accused of the kind of political incorrectness that has recently beset users of the term brainstorming as a technique for enhancing group ideation.

According to Buijs,

Innovation leaders need to show a special kind of leadership. This leadership must be balanced, people-focused and must include a high tolerance for ambiguity and paradoxes. They have to be nice and nasty at the same time


Maybe the innovation process can be split up to provide the nice fuzzy warm stuff at the front end and the tough deadline scrambling at the pointy end. That’s how some textbooks present it.

But neat and tidy stage models of innovation are only approximations of a more complex and iterative reality. Buijs argues persuasively that innovation teams are cross-functional, and that

members … are responsible for the contribution of [various departmental contexts]. They also act as a postillion d’amour’ between the innovation team and their home departments.

To illustrate the iterative nature of the process, he presents the classical creative problem-solving model not in its customary linear form, but reconstructed as an elegant network diagram attributed to Dan Cougar.

The model is particularly worth preserving, because the distinguished author is sadly no longer with us to carry on his exceptional bridging work of the mostly separated islands of Information Systems and creativity.

Professor Buij makes a metaphoric claim in suggesting innovation leaders benfit from possessing schizoid characteristics. But even the metaphor would lose its force, if it were not embedded within a model of innovation as a non-linear process. Otherwise freedom to be creative could be confined to an early part of the process of innovation, perhaps granted to those ‘special creative types’. In a linear model, the case of special leadership skills is less convincing. By re-introducing Cougar’s non-linear model, the idea acquires additional strength.

Are innovation leaders that special?

A case could be made that innovation leaders are part of a wider set of leaders whose circumstances require in them a capacity to deal effectively with two potentially differing personal impulses.

This management of ambiguity is increasingly identified in studies of effective leadership, as ambiguous situations become more and more common. It is why leadership researchers are more aware than ever of the dilemmas of leadership.

An example is from the celebrated studies of high-performance professionals by Murnighan and Conlon

We determined from the data that the string quartets we studied faced three important paradoxes: the leadership versus democracy paradox, the paradox of the second fiddle, and the conflict paradox of confrontation versus compromise

The more general point about dealing with ambiguities is a key point in the influential ideas of group dynamics by Smith & Berg.


The article is fun, bubbling over with flights of imagination expressed in metaphors, some more vivid than others. Indeed, it even has its quota of creative spelings. In other words, it is consistent with the author’s thesis of innovation as a buzzing blooming confusion of activities, mistakes, ever-changing games, and rules of the game. The concept of the innovation leader as a metaphorical and controlled schizophrenic way be of wider application than is suggested.

Leaders we deserve: The WordPress example

August 26, 2007

giant-despair.jpgThis weekend the WordPress internet company ran into serious delivery difficulties. It received a flood of encouraging messages from its customers. The company had earned considerable goodwill through its unwavering customer-orientation. This provides insights into exemplary corporate leadership

In a few years the WordPress organization has signed up over a million bloggers. Subscribers this weekend faced life without a fully-functioning service from their fast-growing provider. That’s a lot of disappointed bloggers. No doubt there were many whose anger and frustration boiled over towards Word Press and the world in general.

However, it seems that quite a lot of people reacted with considerable goodwill towards the company. My own reaction echoed a substantial number of customers who sent emails to Word Press. One typical one came from member advertboy:

Thanks for the heads up.. I completely understand it has nothing to do with WordPress but rather your datacenter providers. I hope you are getting compensation from your datacenter provider …, this is really an unacceptable outage for any business.

Other emails described the fears that the user had been responsible for loss of contact with WordPress, and the subsequent relief to discover there was someone out there caring. Despair turns to hope.

During the night, the team at WordPress continued to work. Tellyworth found time to reply to queries:

The problem wasn’t a hacker, virus or anything malicious like that. We’re still not sure but it looks like a failed upgrade at one of our providers. It hasn’t affected our servers, just network traffic to and between them. Intermittent network problems are still affecting some people, and that will probably continue until after the scheduled maintenance

Unconditional trust

The company seems to have achieved something special within its global network of subscribers. Subscribers? Customers? Members of an extended family? Corporate speak falls short of what’s going on here. To be sure, many corporations say that the customer is their prime concern. But their rhetoric is often ultimately self-defeating. It dulls the senses as it echoes around the catacombs of cynicism. Customers mostly accept that in a far from perfect world, in business transactions they are likely to be dealing with the frailties of human beings intent on putting self-preservation first. Being nice to customers happens to be one way of doing business. Sme firms do their best. But that pragmatic stance is tested when ‘putting people first’ means ‘putting corporate interests second’. Caveat emptor rings as true to day as it has for a couple of millennia.

A few firms transcend pragmatism. Word Press illustrates a process within which a corporate culture is established which has behaves so as to engender unconditional trust in its business actions. How to earn trust? Be trustworthy. Easy to say. For some firms it is also easy to do because it is natural. It would be unnatural for the firm not to work through the night finding a thousand things that might, just might help in a period of crisis. The process is made easier because they already have a lot of capital earned and deposited in the psychological Bank of Trust.

I had been struck by the enthusiasm for improvement shown by the company in its communications. These tend to inform users of improvements to the service. But also they reveal a deep commitment to creativity. What Carl Rogers was describing as the human need to create, so often shrivelled up in corporate life. Only this week users were told how good things come in threes, and learned about the new visuals showing daily, weekly and monthly blog traffic.

Tom Peters was an influential guru from the last Millennium. He wrote a lot of things about excellence, much of it rather insanely enthusiastic of the virtues of being, well, insanely enthusiastic about your business life. He would have loved to have a Word Press to illustrate his ideas.

The disturbances persist

Attempts to preview this post suggest that the crisis is not yet passed. But Giant Despair is more or less under lock and key. Let’s give it another try …

Brainstorming, thought leadership and political correctness.

August 5, 2007


The management technique brainstorming is under attack for politically incorrect terminology. Is this any more than a storm in a political teacup?

I found the news item tucked away in a gossip column in The Independent newspaper [Saturday 4th August, 2007]. Yes, even that very serious and campaigning journal has room for a gossip column.

The piece was written a jokey way. It seems that the term brainstorming in the context of a management technique is the hot topic of debate in university common rooms. This seems extremely unlikely but I am open to correction from anyone with first-hand experience.

There may, however, be some slight significance in the assertion that the term brainstorming has been challenged for having politically incorrect connotations.

I learned of a case in point recently, A colleague with considerable experience as a consultant has been requested to desist from using the term in work for a professional audience. He had been encouraging the use of unstructured and freewheeling discussions for some years as a way of encouraging groups to loosen-up their thinking. There is another discussion about whether this is much use, which I’ll come to shortly.

Being a sensitive sort of chap, my colleague took the line that he had transgressed a localized taboo, and that if he had caused offernce then he was sorry and would learn from his mistake.

He had taken the view that the particular audience was particularly sensitive to the term. He had been working with health care professionals, and they (or some of them) had felt the term to be unacceptable to people who had direct daily contact with the clinical consequences of brain trauma.

Political correctness running wild etc?

The gossip piece reminded me of that anecdote. Its tone had hinted at the comical way in which academics get into a tizzy over trivial things. This is a rather ironic way of approaching the implications of political correctness. But its message echoes a more popularist refrain. Political correctness gone mad … another example of the Nanny-State telling us what we have to say and do … it’s the thought police again … pathetic … .

Come to think of it, the last time this sort of thing hit the news was when McDonalds launched its not inconsiderate resources behind a campaign to police the use of the term McJob

But getting back to brainstorming … the sub-groups directly involved include those change agents such as my colleague who have been describing part of their professional repertoire as brainstorming. It’s a relatively miniscule community, compared with, say financial accountants, or estate agents or even McDonald team leaders. It’s also a community already distancing itself from being practitioners of brainstorming. Some are seeking refuge in the term Parnes-Osborn Creative Problem Solving. Others have their own customized ways of encouraging creativity.

The other problem with brainstorming

That’s partly because professionals like to make claims for their own particular way of doing things. Brainstorming is a bit too general. It may just be that the objections to the term are rippling out beyond the confines of Health Management.

My own take is that practitioners have been claiming too much for the technique. According to the Encyclopedia of Creativity there is very little evidence that the operational processes of brainstorming lead directly to more creative ideas. There is actually a lot more evidence that brainstorming leads indirectly to creative ideas, as well as being a rather efficient way of ‘searching widely’ prior to making an important decision. It is also the case that groups playing around with such approaches are open to other ideas, and likely to be creative in other ways. This is one conclusion that is being drawn from a celebrated management example of the Ideo company, which claims brainstorming as a way of corporate life.

Creating the future: going beyond cowdung

July 2, 2007


Foresight is commonly assumed to be a matter of intuition or coincidence. An understanding of creative problem-solving can help forecasters go beyond the conventional wisdom of the dominant group (COWDUNG)

An earlier post examined the links between leadership and creative problem-solving. Here we import the essential elements of that post and relate them to the challenges of creative forecasting.

Creative Leadership and The Manchester Method

Manchester Business School has developed an approach to management education which involves its students in ‘living cases’ through working on projects with organizational sponsors. The design helps integrate direct business experiences with more traditional classroom lectures. See The Manchester Method for more details.

The approach has yielded many interesting research insights that find application outside student projects.

For example, the approach can offer questions of interest to forecasters such as the following:

The research questions

How might forecasting be enhanced through the application of structured approaches to creativity (such as brainstorming and lateral thinking)?

How might creativity in forecasting teams be assessed?

Understanding creativity through experiences of team projects

Experience from several hundred team projects projects over three decades suggest that a structured creativity approach helps if the team has a process leader, who is primarily concerned with setting a creative climate for the team, and who helps the team members collaborate and achieve ‘yes and’ rather than ‘either-or’ results from working together.

Assessment of team creativity and creative leadership is carried out through a team factors inventory which has helped identify factors associated with effective team leadership and team performance.

Creative leadership and intrinsic motivation

This approach indicates that effective creative leadership provides space within which intrinsic motivation and creativity of team members flourish. The leadership style is characterized as invitational, and trust-based. An important point is that the creative leader takes responsibility of developing the creativity of the team. It is tempting for a nominated team-leader to dominate the idea generation process. This approach can work under special circumstances – for example, when the team leader is an exceptionally creative individual. Sadly, the creativity of such a leader often diminishes the creative contributions of team members.

A presentation originally prepared for an audience of designers makes a convenient introduction to creativity in forecasting. You can access the presentation here.

Creativity and Cowdung

When thinking about the special needs of forecasters for creativity, I was reminded of a concept which carries the attractive acronym COWDUNG, standing for the conventional wisdom of the dominant group. Ifryn Price at Sheffield Hallam is introducing his students to Waddington’s concept.

Forecasting techniques are good at arriving at consensus. The uncreative applications of the techniques may only take us as far as the conventional wisdom of the dominant group. Our work on creative leadership suggested that creativity techniques such as Lateral Thinking help a team go ‘beyond the obvious’, by challenging conventional wisdom.

We have proposed the terminology of a platform of understanding. A team that goes beyong its platform of understanding escapes the conventional wisdom of the group. This leads to an extension to the well-known Tuckman model of team development.


A presentation originally prepared for an audience of Business Students [April 2008] makes a convenient introduction to creativity in forecasting. You can access the presentation here.

Another presentation from May 2008

The drug pipeline: Is it bust, and if so can we fix it?

June 11, 2007


Since the post, the concept of Open Innovation has become popular. It may well provide the alternative metaphor called for. Original post follows. [Update added Aug 2009]

The big question for Big Pharma: Is the pipeline metaphor for drug discovery and exploitation no longer fit for purpose? And if so, where do we look for a more appropriate metaphor?

For decades, innovation texts have documented the basic process of drug discovery and exploitation as progressing through a pipeline. But it is a very peculiar pipeline, because it has a huge number of ‘things’ entering at one end (ideas), and a tiny number of things (products) emerging from the other end of the pipe.

Think of the pipeline as an ice-cream cone placed horizontally and you’ve got the broad picture to be found in the text-books. The ‘things’ entering in great numbers at the business end of the cone are ideas for active chemicals or leads. The ‘things’ oozing slowly out at the other end are new drugs, of which there even fewer ‘big winners’.

Once strategic considerations have identified a medical opportinity or need the pipeline process begins in earnest. The description offered by AstraZeneca is a generic one:

High Throughput Screening is an automated system for testing tens or even hundreds of thousands of compounds rapidly and is highly effective for eliminating ineffective compounds and identifying potentially useful ones.

But the pipeline model has had its critics :

Ten years ago, high throughput screening (HTS) was being touted as the answer to improving productivity in drug discovery. If screening thousands of compounds a week was good, screening hundreds of thousands would be even better. This led to the boom in Ultra HTS (UHTS), manufacturing-scale systems, and high-speed automation. Today, reality has begun to creep in: HTS and UHTS have not lived up to their hype. R&D productivity is not improving, in fact it may be declining

A model past its sell-by date?

My uneasiness about old mental models is being echoed by pharmamacutical insiders. Mats Sundgren with many years of experience, has successfully completed his doctorate on the need for new thinking in the industry. He argues that over time, research has increasingly accepted the need for rationality in a way that is precluding the possibilities for imaginative (‘creative’) leaps of discovery. Sundgren argues that the management of creativity will be the decisive competitive advantage of the future.

Alexander Styrhre of Chalmers University with Sundgren have further developed an analysis of pharmaceutical companies.

They suggest that the there is a wider need for more creativity, extending far beyond Big Pharma.

Is the pipeline bust, and must we fix it?

The drug pipeline has become such a given for those in the business of drug making and exploiting, that its inherent looseless is now left unchallenged. What might have started as a metaphor borrowed from earlier industrial usage has become a taken-for-granted cliche.

Take for example the press statement of a partnership between AstraZeneca and Bristol-Myers recently. A headline illustrting the industry dialect ran:

‘Deal [is] A Significant Step In Strengthening AstraZeneca’s Late Stage Pipeline Partnership Aligned with Bristol-Myers Squibb Company Strategy’.

You decide. My reading is that it’s time for a change of thinking about how Pharmaceutical comapanies go about their core mission of innovating in the interests of social health.

The drug companies are populated by large numbers of very bright people. I’ve served a bit of time among them, but now I mostly gaze from outside in. But I can still read the public pronouncements. In press releases, I’m still hearing talk as if the issue is to fix the plumbing, keep the pipeline. The mega giants of Big Pharma maintain their great chemical search machines churning away, piling leads for testing into the wide end of the funnel in ever greater numbers; smoothing the flow along the pipeline, to increase the chances of the billion-dollar idea emerging at the other end.

So what?

There are far wider issues to consider beyond the largely technical issues of re-examining the pipeline model of innovation. Widespread concerns of an ethical concern continue to plague the industry. One big advantage for a re-visiting of the pipeline is to see whether ‘pipeline thinking’ can
be challenged, and help in the design of more socially benign and less technologically dominated models and practice.

Managing creativity

Sundgren is suggesting Managing Creativity is one promising possibility. We have opened up the debate on creative leadership in earlier posts on this blog. A forthcoming special issue of the journal Creativity and Innovation Management will offer additional studies into these topics.

Is it too challenging to assert ‘there is no drug pipeline, and we have no need to invent one’?