The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which traces its roots as far back as 1887, has long been the primary driver for medical research in not only the United States, but the world. Work at NIH has led to a host of important cures, from life saving vaccines and miracle drugs to the use of fluoride to fight tooth decay.
Over the past 20 years, research at NIH has been making slow progress against cancer, increasing survival rates by about 1% per year. Yet now, through a new initiative called 21st Century Cures Act, we can accelerate that progress, perhaps drastically, and finally cure cancer as well as other chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes.
As Ron DePinho, President of MD Anderson, told me, “We have a confluence of major discoveries that have occurred across a wide range of fronts, which allow us to understand life and disease at a basic level and use those insights to influence its processes. We are now able to make a decisive assault on the cancer problem, if we have the resources.”
I recently had the opportunity to visit the Institute for Advanced Study, the place where Einstein worked till his death in 1955. His arrival there was a sort of a tipping point for America—after him the trickle of leading scientists coming from Europe became a flood—and the legend of the place is still very much intertwined with his.
Of course, the Institute is much bigger than one man. Other legends, from von Neumann to Gödel to Kennan, once roamed its halls as well and today hundreds of the world’s greatest minds in fields ranging from anthropology to theoretical physics come to, as Steve Jobs would put it, make a dent in the universe.
Still, while the achievements of the Institute belong to many, its majesty belongs to Einstein alone, which is one of the things that makes it such a special place. We may live our lives in prose, but it is poetry that we live for. A compelling story can lead to narrative that inspires a shared sense of mission and sparks a long and great legacy. That’s the power of story.
Ever since the commercial Internet emerged, content has been at the center. Bill Gates, quite famously, declared that content is king and called it the “killer app” of the Internet age. Inspired, media executives and internet entrepreneurs alike sought to marry content and distribution to create the perfect business model.
The problem is, as I’ve noted before, that content is crap. Nobody walks out of a great movie and says, “Wow! That was some great content.” Nobody listens to content on their way to work in the morning. We never call anything that’s any good “content,” the term is a mere fantasy in the minds of business planners.
That, in essence, is why despite the predictions of digital pundits, the TV remains a great business. Through a series of disruptions—cable, DVD and now streaming video—programing continues to evolve. Now, with the cable business model starting to unravel, we can expect an explosion of creative energy that will usher in a new golden age of TV.
It’s easy to get depressed about the world these days. Watch the news for five minutes or more and you’re bound to see signs of the apocalypse. War, poverty, climate change, a new pandemic, there always seems to be new trouble arising somewhere that threatens our health and security.
And the future looks even brighter. We are, despite the headlines, making considerable progress against many of our toughest challenges. Over the next 5-10 years, it is within our reach to cure cancer, solve climate change and create new levels of prosperity. So, nostalgia for bygone days notwithstanding, the truth is that we have a lot to look forward to.
Everybody likes to operate in an environment of trust. When you deal with people you trust, things get done faster, stress is reduced and new opportunities open up. As E.M. Forster once wrote, “One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life.”
And many businesses are able to do just that. McDonald’s has maintained trustful partnerships with its suppliers for decades, which gives it a competitive advantage. Even on Wall Street, most trades are done on a virtual handshake over the phone. While the lines are recorded for verification, most deals go off without a hitch.
Yet we must often deal with people we don’t trust. Sometimes we even need to work with people we intensely dislike. Still, the more trust we are able to build, the more successful we will be. Honesty is, of course, a good policy, but honesty alone won’t solve basic problems of trust. Rather, we need to identify the sources of mistrust and work to eliminate them.
Efficiency was the mantra of 20th century industry. If you could produce an equal or superior product for a lower price, chances were that you could win in the marketplace. So managers continually honed their operations to achieve maximum productivity at minimal cost.
Yet these days, success is determined, as Peter Drucker put it in The Effective Executive, not so much by doing things “right,” but by “doing the right things” and that’s a different matter altogether. The simple fact is that business models no longer last, so agility often trumps efficiency.
In Iraq, General Stanley McChrystal faced this problem in real time. Although he commanded the most effective military machine ever designed and could win any battle, he couldn’t predict where those battles would be. In his new book, Team of Teams, he describes how he reengineered his organization to not merely executive, but to continuously adapt.
In Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal credits his focus on transforming military culture as key to turning the tide in Iraq. He writes that “the role of the leader was no more that of controlling puppet master, but of an empathetic crafter of culture.”
He’s not alone. Philadelphia Eagles Coach Chip Kelly says, “Culture will beat scheme every day.” Former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner wrote that “Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game…. What does the culture reward and punish – individual achievement or team play, risk taking or consensus building?”
Yet culture can also be a trap, an excuse for doing nothing when faced with challenges and opportunities that don’t fit in with an organization’s history. Blockbuster and Kodak both had strong corporate cultures and in both cases, ingrained attitudes contributed to their demise. So simply having a strong culture is not enough, it has to serve a productive purpose.
Digital Tonto was born just a few weeks before my daughter, so in a sense, they’ve grown up together. Over the years, she’s become vaguely aware of her virtual sibling, enough to know that Mommy is good at doing all the important things while Daddy is good at “making posts.”
Six is a strange age. It’s fairly similar to five, with few conspicuous achievements to distinguish it from a year earlier, but proficiencies deepen. I think that’s true of both my daughter and Digital Tonto. As the site has gained recognition, I’ve gained better access to sources and that’s improved my ability to form insights.
As in previous years, I’m celebrating the occasion by posting my favorite articles over the past year or so. These aren’t necessarily the most popular, but they are the ones that I found myself going back to. I’d also like to thank everyone for all of the enormous support. I appreciate it more than you can know. Looking forward to year number seven!
There’s been a lot of handwringing about America’s performance in STEM education lately and increasing concern that we need to step up our efforts. As the world becomes progressively more technological, so the thinking goes, those without requisite skills will get left behind.
Yet Fareed Zakaria disagrees. In fact, in his new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, he argues that it has been America’s commitment to a broad-based education that has led to our current level of prosperity. He also notes that other high tech countries, like Sweden and Israel, perform even worse on STEM tests than we do.
In an article in Harvard Business Review, Dr. David Brendel takes it a step further. In addition to the liberal arts skills that Zakaria cites, he argues that philosophical reflection is essential for effective leadership. I agree. However, I also think that he overlooks another benefit of philosophy: it teaches practical skills that managers need now more than ever.
In the early 20th Century, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr engaged in a series of debates that would determine the future of physics. Yet virtually nobody outside the physics community took much notice. The true impact of what they were discussing wouldn’t be clear till a half century later.
Eventually, engineers began to understand enough of what Einstein and Bohr were talking about to create some basic components, such as the transistor and the microchip; and those innovations led to the information age that unleashed a boom in productivity during the 1990’s.
The story encapsulates just how convoluted the path to productivity often is. Discoveries of mysterious phenomena must be engineered into innovative solutions, a process that can take decades. Then those solutions must be adopted by industry, which can take decades more. Clearly, we need to better connect the realms of discovery, innovation and transformation.