I had my first ever experience of Budapest this week. I was invited to speak at a Conference on R&D productivity. This was a meeting I have attended for the last two years, have thoroughly enjoyed and have always left with more ideas (and business cards) than when I arrived.
Budapest was full of amazing contrasts. Stunning buildings and amazing bridges in the center. Concrete everywhere else. Without exception, everyone I met was happy and helpful and local scientists at the conference were impressive and insightful. It was well worth the trip.
I was first on the agenda…but on day two. This is always engaging. I spend the first day looking for themes, messages or ideas to mention in my talk. I ask questions and listen intently. I look for slides I don’t need. I seek out new slides to add. My goal is always to start day two with high energy. Wake everyone up after that long first day.
Day One involved much discussion about size. Big Pharma. Small biotech. Big is bad. Small is superior. Integration is outdated. Autonomy is all the rage. Open Innovation is powerful. Internal competencies are crucial. But what was the theme? What messages were consistent?
That was my takeaway. It was all about the people. No matter what ‘it’ was, it was always people who made it work. People who worked together to achieve it. People who had ideas and people who persevered to succeed.
Overnight I added slides referring to people. I invoked Dunbar’s number – 150. Robin Dunbar proposed that any one person can only have 150 friends. Anything more is simply too much for anyone to remember and keep track of. Application of Dunbar’s number to business suggests maximum size of an ‘aligned’ organisation is 150. Within a business unit of 150 it is possible to have a tangible sense of community based on regular and meaningful social contact. This in turn leads to a ‘moral contract’ between team members.
Everyone knows everyone else – knows what each person brings to the team – giving positive impact on idea generation and problem solving. Individuals will be there for their colleagues – team members are more likely to go that extra mile for each other. Such groups will always achieve and always deliver more. Smaller does indeed have a rationale to be better.
I also took opportunity to talk about the future. My future. One colleague asked me how I would rank ‘challenging work’ as a decision factor in what I do next. “Essential” was my immediate reply. But how would I prioritize ‘challenging work’ against joining an organisation that assigned ‘high value to collaboration’ was the response.
This corollary surprised me – not least since I had assumed my options were going to be challenging work vs. routine work – a simple choice. But the actual question was challenging work vs. collaboration focus. I played for time by suggesting that this wasn’t a valid decision to have to make. But that was the point. These types of questions are designed to provoke deeper reflection in anyone considering future roles and opportunities. No-one said it was supposed to be easy.
So this did make me think. And on reflection the answer was obvious – focus on collaboration. My logic was simple – that an environment where collaboration was a focus would be engaging, innovative, enjoyable and full of impact. Moreover, working in such an environment could only lead to the most challenging work imaginable. Conversely, having to cope with challenging work in an environment where collaboration was not expected – let alone a focus – would be unimaginable.