Rating Pharma on the Steve Jobs Checklist


Last week the popular and the business media paid their respects to the passing of Steve Jobs. That is entirely appropriate because Jobs not only created an astonishing business success, but as the comments from individuals around the world attest, his work personally affected the lives of millions. Yet business leaders deserve to be considered great if they can establish principles, patterns or ideas that transcend their individual successes. So when a great one passes from the scene, it makes sense to assess if our own business sector follows his principles and, if not, what circumstances might limit their application. Here are a few of the foundational ideas that business analysts have associated with Steve Jobs, together with a rough-and-ready assessment of whether pharma's business leaders have applied them.

• Take technology away from the geeks

Probably no other principle so well characterizes what Jobs did at Apple. He made technology serve the needs and preferences of non-technical consumers. Instead of trying to remake consumers into light techies, Jobs subordinated technology by using it to help customers expand their personal capabilities and consciousness. The idea did not originate with Jobs. The Latin term, ars est celare artem, means it is true art to conceal the art, but Jobs applied it magnificently.

Several years ago Jobs claimed he was using technology to advance the classic aims of the liberal arts, lux et veritas, truth and beauty. For most of its history, pharma pushed in the opposite direction, trying to give mundane products the appearance of uniqueness and rigor by cloaking them in technical mumbo jumbo. Although pharma's ideas and developments come from highly technical, pre-clinical and clinical scientists, the products of their efforts must gain acceptance by infinitely less technical, primary care physicians who must explain them to everyday patients. Pharma explained its products by catering to the tech-wannabe within many physicians, a sort of medical machismo that has been rightly derided for years by women physicians as "techno-balls."

Especially since 1997, when pharma's lobbying to allow direct-to-consumer advertising proved successful, the industry's sensibility has been guided by the liberal arts' fallen angel: advertising in its worst form. Drug advertising, whether on television or other media, is typically deceptive, superficial and based upon misdirection. Instead of pursuing the liberal arts' understanding of oneself and the world, pharma advertising often relies on half-truths. It is a contemporary form of what Socrates considered a cynical perversion of the search for knowledge -- sophistry.

• Let your goal determine your business model, rather than vice versa

Rather than enslaving himself to process or dogma, Jobs never wanted to let received wisdom hinder his pursuit of new goals. In the IT world, Apple as a company derived its personal computer revenues from hardware. Yet when Jobs developed the iPod, he developed an approach later emulated by Amazon's Kindle of making money from content. When this sort of razor-razorblade approach proved unsustainable, Jobs shifted the music downloading capability to the iPhone and iPad, thereby returning to making money from hardware.

Pharma by contrast has been so wedded to its business model -- patent protection, economy of scale, blockbusters, individual prescribers as gatekeepers, me-too drugs -- that it appears powerless to change when many of those elements no longer appear to work.

• Don't waste your time living someone else's life

Jobs' reflections on his own mortality led him to an insight reached by Jean Paul Sartre and other philosophers. Man's knowledge of his inevitable demise, something no other animal possesses, provides the spark for understanding one's purpose. Since our time on earth remains limited, none of it should be wasted on inauthentic pursuits.

Among the modern industries, a high percentage of pharma's professional workforce began their careers as a result of an individual passion and a sense that their organizations encouraged personal contributions from them. During the recent years of downsizing, however, the sense of alienation among the industry's workers has grown considerably. Critical thinking, for example, has dissipated in an atmosphere where companies encourage narrow vision, smaller steps, and timid acquiescence to innovation-killing lawyers and soul-chilling finance managers.

• Skate to where the puck will be, not to where it is

Jobs borrowed this insight from hockey great Wayne Gretsky. In the case of Apple's CEO, it meant that he didn't rely on consumers to do his marketing for him by asking them what they wanted. "How will they know they want something," he once said, "until we show it to them?"

Here as in many other areas, pharma steadfastly applied the conservative marketing maxim of only seeking to address existing needs instead of trying to create them or address needs that have not yet been well articulated. In fairness, much of this avoidance results from pharma's ten-year cycle of product development. An IT company can feasibly divine a need that has not yet been clarified and develop a product for it within eighteen months. Trying to do that a decade in advance becomes far more problematic.

Pharma was also hindered by the fact that its customer base of physicians is possibly the most literal and unimaginative group of consumers in the world. A product planner can listen to a personal computer user and conclude, "What he's really saying is...I bet if we...then he'd get blown away with how insanely great that would be." When a physician says something, on the other hand, it admits of no allusion or imaginative interpretation. Its prosaic meaning is what it is. It remains entirely understandable that the best treatment outcomes result from physicians who rely on checklists. The so-called art of medicine possesses the hues and colors of a black-and-white snapshot.

So perhaps the industries are just too different for Steve Jobs to serve as a pharma icon. Nevertheless his death still makes it regrettable that the drug industry has not developed a leadership with his insight, nerve and sense of the humanities.

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