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Towards Less Dysfunctional Workplaces - Target the Diseases

For most part of my professional career, I have worked in the pharmaceutical industry, still do today. For those who are unfamiliar with the drug discovery process, you might be surprised to know that the most critical and expensive step of making a new drug is NOT to find the cure which is indeed plenty challenging. Even more difficult is to be able to describe, understand and isolate the disease in the first place. It requires the invention and skillful applications of a set of specialized languages suitable for its intended purpose – chemistry, biology, physiology, pharmacology, etc.  Once a disease target is successfully characterized, the discovery of an adequate cure is just a matter of time and resources.

When we apply this analogy to the wide spread phenomena of dysfunctional workplaces, it is amazing how little investments most companies and individuals are willing to make in diagnosing, understanding and isolating the real disease targets before jumping in with half-baked solutions that address only the symptoms at the cost of introducing even more painful side effects! In a very literal sense, the effectiveness of most organizations, managers and consultants today are limited not by a lack of desires or resources but rather inadequate language to understand the real disease.

Let’s illustrate this predicament using a concrete business case. One of the most significant technological breakthroughs in the pharmaceutical industry in last 10-15 years has been the invention and adoption of electronic laboratory notebooks, sort of the Wikipedia of proprietary information inside pharmaceutical companies. However, the adoption of this new technology has run into major challenges at most companies which have little to do with either the robustness of the technology or compelling market value. At the technological end, the power and ease of use of electronic notebook products far exceed traditional paper media. Scientists can write, draw, cut and paste, search, link, export, import and share multiple sources of information, all at a few clicks on the keyboard or a tablet. From a business perspective, the days of making scientific discoveries by ‘lone wolf’ scientists working by themselves are long gone. At this day and age, drug discovery and development are made by teams of experts from multiple disciplines, collaborating from all over the world 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. One of the key enablers of such team-based innovation is real time access to latest information wherever and whenever the research is being conducted. A research scientist in India might have done a critical experiment that will inform the decisions of a fellow scientist in America the following day. Traditionally, the process of transferring research information recorded on paper notebooks from one laboratory to another takes weeks or even months as individual hand writing must be reproduced/translated, verified and transported. The invention of electronic laboratory notebooks shrinks the window of information transfers between individual scientists from months to seconds and boosts significantly the R&D productivity for pharmaceutical companies. So what’s the problem?

It turned out that there are at least three types of organizational challenges to achieve successful adoption of a new technology. First, certain work routines must be modified to align with the electronic age. For example, scientists used to sign off the contents of their notebooks once every month. Now in order to make research information available instantaneously, they must sign off their work every day. Most people could make the adjustments after a short period of getting used to the new routine. The second challenge arises when new skills are demanded of the scientists that were not required previously. For example, organizing information in a format that is easy to pass on to other colleagues requires defining protocols and templates ahead of time and following established standards rigorously. It turns out that a substantial portion of the highly educated scientists with PhDs have never developed such process discipline as most factory workers have! They are much more used to let their minds wonder and improvise as they go about their days. In other words, their work habits are deeply entrenched in the more than 200 years old tradition of doing research as lone wolves. The third challenge is the deeply held and subconscious self-image and belief by most scientists that they are the innovators and must have the total freedom of doing whatever comes to their minds at any moment.  They feel slighted or even humiliated when being asked to follow a pre-established routine even though the latter helps them reduce the amount of time they must spend on administrative chores such as documenting the results of their research. Extensive studies have shown that maintenance or noncreative activities occupy over 50% of their day even among the most creative scientists in the world. For example, a scientist working in the pharmaceutical company typically spends upwards of 20% of his or her time organizing and documenting the data he or she has produced in the laboratory. Instead of cutting and cluing a piece of instrument data printout onto a paper notebook page as they used to, an electronic laboratory notebook allows them to import the data into their notebook at the click of a single key stroke. Ten years into the electronic laboratory era, few if any die-hard scientists remain today that would trade electronic laboratory notebooks for their old paperbacks! It’s hard to imagine now their initial stubbornness and ferocity with which they had resisted and even fought what’s perceived as invasions to their scientific independence.

There we have a perfect example of the #1 cause for dysfunctional workplaces: the human inertia to change. It is rooted in the basic human condition and therefore can only be facilitated and redirected, not eliminated or criminalized. Unfortunately, the prevailing management culture in Corporate America has a tendency of falling into the latter traps and contributes to creating even more dysfunctional workplaces. In other words, the #2 cause of dysfunctional workplaces is the management ignorance and zeal to deny and even ‘criminalize’ the natural existence of human inertias. I once worked with a senior business executive who refused to discuss a budget proposal for organizational change management by stating that her change management strategy was to communicate to employees that they must follow orders or die … Needless to say, the change initiative ran into major difficulties and resulted in a great deal of loss in employee morale and productivity as well as increased total cost of implementation for the company due to repeated delays.

In summary, we have identified two disease targets underlying dysfunctional workplaces. The first is rooted in the basic human condition of inertia or delayed response to change while the second is caused by the management failure to deal with the phenomenon of inertia effectively. It is hardly surprisingly then that few if any organization or community anywhere is completely free of the symptoms of such diseases. The good news is that unlike the bygone era, the twin engines of the modern economy - globalization and information technology - have raised the visibilities and stakes of the sufferings so much that increasingly more effective cures are just now being discovered and applied. We will explore some of these breakthrough therapies next time.

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