Propel Careers

Propel Industry Insights: The Champion versus The Zealot, by Kevin Sprott 

October 30, 2010 
by Kevin Sprott 

Tom Brady. Good, I have your attention.

What a game coming up Sunday! The Vikings with Randy Moss and Brett Favre against Brady and the Pats, how great is that going to be??? I'm a Kansas City Chiefs fan, so I'm unbiased as per the result of the game, but certainly interested in the drama. What does this have to do with the champion and the zealot? Read on...and send me your thoughts.

I recently had the opportunity to hear Julian Adams give a slide-less discussion on the discovery of Velcade, a drug that has extended the lives of countless patients who have been diagnosed with a lethal condition called multiple myeloma. Julian's story is filled with highs and lows as his teams fought through the many hurdles of getting a drug approved for use in patients. Some of his actions and decisions along the way could certainly be labeled aggressive and risky, but without taking this approach it's clear that Velcade would not have made it through. Julian was the champion for Velcade and without his persistence it would probably not be available today for patients suffering from this terrible disease.

Afterwards, I had the opportunity to sit down and discuss the process, as well as his approach, that led to Velcade getting approved, and I asked him to comment on the following: there is a constant tension in our business (drug discovery) between knowing when to be persistent (do anything to keep the project alive) and knowing when to call it quits (assess the cost of opportunity and decide there are other more fruitful things we could be doing). He acknowledged the tension and said "yes: a champion versus a zealot"'. His answer: follow the data. That simple. If you let the data drive, you will be a champion. If politics or other unhealthy dynamics begin to influence decision making, you risk becoming a zealot.

Every drug needs a one will argue that. So I began to think about what it means to be a champion and how organizations can promote the champion and avoid the zealot. With this in mind, two principles struck me as being critical to shaping a champion: one is the notion of a champion 'asking for forgiveness, not permission'-- couple that with a keen awareness of all the potential resulting upsides and pitfalls of each decision. Remove one of those two principles and you've lost your champion: if he/she always has to ask for permission, the champion dies; if the champion doesn't recognize, or isn't willing to acknowledge, the potential rewards and risks of every decision then he/she could easily kill the project/team/relationship (or even worst-case a patient) and a zealot has been born.

Back to what made you read on: Tom Brady and Brett Favre (remember, I'm a Chiefs fan here, so no bias). Due to the 'live' nature of their job, both always adhere to the 'ask for forgiveness, not permission' rule – they can't look to the bench during a play and ask permission to throw it to receiver X. What about the second aspect being a great champion? The one where I say 'if the champion doesn't recognize, or isn't willing to acknowledge, the potential rewards and risks of every decision'... so Brett Farve and Tom Brady: which one recognizes all the potential rewards and risks of his decision? Who throws it away on 3rd and 8 and who continually 'zealots' himself into game-changing interceptions? Ah...The Champion versus The Zealot.

In my opinion, in order to discover a drug, there are absolutely 2 'must haves': a great champion (intuitive, dedicated, hard-working, data-driven, etc) and serendipity. Attaining serendipity is...well...serendipitous. Finding and empowering a great champion is not.

I'd like your thoughts...

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