Summer Must Reads for Pharma: Part 2

We speak to Jane Griffiths, Julie O'Donnell & Jessica Federer among others to see what's on their must read lists.



Both Ash Rishi, Managing Director of COUCH Medical Communications, and Julie O’Donnell, Senior Director and Head of Global Customer Interaction Management at Lundbeck, recommend a book about something pharma (or anyone) can find difficult to accept – failure.

Black Box Thinking

By Matthew Syed

“I got directed to Black Box Thinking by a colleague after having a rather heated debate about perceptions of failure - as individuals, businesses, or even on a national level,” shares Rishi. “Failure. It is such a tough word to deal with,” he adds. “We sometimes learn from it; we sometimes avoid confronting it. Needless to say, this book highlights how seeing failure as feedback and a learning opportunity leads to success.”

According to Rishi, Black Box Thinking is a fascinating read and the author is a brilliant storyteller. “That is why this book is great for inspiring big ideas,” he says. “Where this book has its most inherent value, for the pharma industry, is this concept of learning from failure. The most successful industries and teams have learned from this.” Indeed, just think of Mercedes F1, Team Sky, the aviation industry, and even James Dyson.

So, what can we learn from failure? “Firstly, we can be more honest,” advises Rishi, explaining that every app, website, and communications program cannot be a success. “But what we can do,” he says, “is be a little more agile and continually improve our products, services, and solutions.”

And what can we do on a practical level to conquer the fear of failure? “We can start by holding leadership accountable,” believes Rishi. “We must start building in a space for failing fast and learning faster. Once this thinking is embedded, we will see true innovation and less fear of failing.”

Overall, Rishi feels that Black Box Thinking is a must read from a personal, business, industry and societal level.

Julie O’Donnell agrees, explaining that the title of the book is taken from the 'black box' data recorders on airplanes. She adds, “The author looks at how some people, and industries, learn from failure (like airlines after crashes), but how others never learn from their mistakes.” Exploring case studies from diverse businesses, the author's key message is that those who succeed in life are those who truly embrace failure. “People and businesses that have both a culture supporting the disclosure of failure and processes that allow for active learning are those that 'win,'” says O’Donnell.

The author of Black Box Thinking also calls out the myth that innovation centers around a 'lightbulb' moment. “Instead, he uses science and hard data to highlight that innovation comes largely from an iterative process - learning from the failures of dozens or hundreds of failed prototypes,” O’Donnell explains, adding, “This is something that many in Pharma and other industries should note as they head off for 'innovation workshops' in the hope of the 'aha' moment that will change everything.”

The combination of interesting and emotive case studies, interviews with people like James Dyson and the 'science' of failure makes Black Box Thinking a captivating read, according to O’Donnell.

Frank Dolan, Area Sales Director at ACADIA Pharmaceuticals Inc., also recommends a science-based book.  

No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness

By Michelle Segar

“As someone who enjoys exercise, reading a book about breaking the mental barriers to regular physical activity seems like a mismatch,” says Dolan. “The truth is, I have found it difficult to make the connection with friends and family who struggle to keep activity as a cornerstone of their lives.” Hoping to make his case and encourage others, this book has helped Dolan better understand what holds many of us back from simply taking the first step, each day, to leading a healthy, physically active life.

The author has an impressive background of study and an easy writing style that takes the logical and well-known steps to an active life and presents them in a way that upends the standard ‘motivational’ talking points. “For example, move from priming yourself for a big workout to simply ‘making the first move,’” explains Dolan. “When I think about being supportive to friends who want to improve their lifestyle, I feel that I need to validate the diet, exercise routine, or investment they make. As shared in the book, a key to success is finding a way to be internally motivated to enjoy the gift of exercise.”

No Sweat paints a practical picture of our environment, touting the benefits of exercise, says Dolan. “We have advertisements everywhere, medical references imploring a healthy lifestyle, and fearful examples of what a poor diet and exercise life-choice can do to the human body,” he adds. “Clearly, we all get the facts and logic, we are not short on being convinced - it is just that most people aren’t motivated by it.  Once someone sees the simplicity of making a small instant decision to make a move, feel that exercise is a gift, and enjoy the journey of an active life vs short-term accomplishment, they shift the argument and become self-motivated, looking at a life of fitness through a new frame.”

Jane Griffiths, Company Group Chairman, Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, certainly has an understanding of motivation when it comes to physical activity, as demonstrated by her summer read recommendation and the story behind it.

No Picnic on Mount Kenya: A Daring Escape, A Precious Climb

By Felice Benuzzi

Griffiths shares, “To start my story about my holiday reading, I will take you back 20 years to when my mother died of breast cancer. From that day, I vowed to do something challenging in her memory.  So, 15 years later I decided to climb Mount Kenya with a friend who agreed to accompany me.  It was an amazing experience; it made me get fit to prepare and I used it as an opportunity to raise money for Save the Children in Mum’s memory.”

I draw the parallel in my personal and professional life – set challenging goals, inspire those around you, prepare well, but most importantly, have a dream.

It was this trip that led Griffiths to pick up No Picnic on Mount Kenya, the true story of three escaped Italian prisoners of war who attempted to reach the summit of Mount Kenya. The narrative reminds Griffiths of the beautiful Mount Kenya and she finds the sheer grit, determination, and vision needed by these prisoners to get to the summit inspiring. “I draw the parallel in my personal and professional life – set challenging goals, inspire those around you, prepare well, but most importantly, have a dream,” says Griffiths.

Jessica Federer, who leads digital development at Bayer, recommends two books, both of which emphasize one of her favorite quotes in different but complementary ways: “A person is a person through other people.”

When Breath Becomes Air

By Paul Kalanithi

Taking us back to Part 1 of this summer reads series, where Emma Sutcliffe of the Grünenthal Group discusses When Breath Becomes Air, Federer says, “I finished this book in one day. It’s a beautifully written story that will touch your humanity, and give you cause to pause and appreciate your life.” It’s the story of a thirty-six-year-old physician, Paul Kalanithi, who receives a terminal diagnosis. “Books about death are never easy,” Federer empathizes, “and this one is no exception - but it is more accurately a book about life. And for readers working in the pharmaceutical industry, it’s a vivid reminder of the intensely personal experience of the patient and the people who love them.”

The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism

By Arun Sundararajan

The Sharing Economy is about how individuals are collectively impacting the economy.  According to Federer, “The pharmaceutical industry does not work in a vacuum. We depend on volunteer participants for our trials, the contributions of physicians for our research, and the collaboration of governments and health systems around the world. Our industry evolves together with the changes in our societies and countries, so it’s important to understand the developments taking place around us.”

One of the points I really appreciated is that just because platforms have been tried and failed, does not mean that a demand isn’t there. The failure could be from a design problem and not an economic inefficiency problem.

The author addresses how the rise of Uber and Airbnb impact societies, workforces, laws, policies, and social safety nets. “I found myself relating to some of the familiar examples and reaching for Google to learn more about others,” shares Federer. “One of the points I really appreciated is that just because platforms have been tried and failed, does not mean that a demand isn’t there. The failure could be from a design problem and not an economic inefficiency problem.” 

If you are anything like Federer, as you go through the chapters of The Sharing Economy, you will find yourself wondering about how such an economy will impact the pharmaceutical industry and the broader public health infrastructure. What changes could the rise of crowd-based capitalism trigger for pharma innovation to help improve the lives of people around the world?  “The opportunities are there, for all of us to find,” says Federer.

Feeling spoilt for choice? I know I am.


If you have any recommended reads, please do share them in the comments box at the end of this article.


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