Episode 10 – Culture, clock speeds, leadership with Allison Haitz

Jun 27, 2022

About this episode

In a podcast recorded a few years ago, I chatted with Allison Haitz, currently Biotechnology Programme Director at Givaudan about R&D, technology transfer and commercialisation. These were originally released in three parts exploring the issues of R&D culture and clock speeds (Part 1), Management, leadership and balance (Part 2) and Equilibrium, academics and policies (Part 3).

We are taking the opportunity to relaunch these as a single podcast, with thanks to Allison and the team at R&D Today, to share some of our thoughts in light of Spiegare’s newly minted Service Partner Membership of Cooperative Research Australia.


AH: I’m joined today by Cameron Begley of Spiegare Limited, and he is the managing director. Cameron, thank you for joining.

CB: Thank you, Allison.

AH: Which part of the world are you in at the moment?

CB: I’m currently sitting in Canberra in Australia on a balmy summer’s evening as the sun settles.

AH: That sounds absolutely wonderful. Now, I know that you’ve had an awful lot of experience in the management of R & D through the years. So, through the different organizations that you’ve worked with, you must have seen quite a range of different cultures. Do you think the different organizations have very different R & D cultures?

CB: Oh, undoubtedly. And culture, I think, is I mean, across all organizations, I think there’s an expression that ‘culture eats strategy’, and I think that’s absolutely true when it comes to R & D in the private sector, R &D D on my observation is very vectored. There is a clear commercial imperative and there is strong alignment around the work that’s done to deliver a particular commercial objective. I experienced that, particularly when I was at Akzo Nobel, where I was involved with a business unit that developed organic peroxides and polymer catalysts and it was a very, very focused group of researchers trying to improve polymer production. That’s a distinct contrast from the R & D cultures, I think one finds in research communities where at the same time there are varying degrees of industrial or commercial orientation and that’s normally across a range of disciplines, but there’s also more bandwidth for curiosity-driven research. I speak fondly of the concept of ‘skunking’, which I think is almost something that has to be done in order to keep pushing boundaries, but there is an equilibrium and a different culture around those different types of organizations and there are subcultures within organizations. Within CSIRO, you had parts of the organization which were ostensibly public-good orientated. And indeed, when I was in Entomology as the commercial director, we had a group that looked after the National Insect Collection which had almost zero private commercial-good associated with it. In fact, was driven by philanthropic benefactors and donations and the like, looking to keep something in the national interest as a resource all the way through to developing enzymes to degrade pesticides for environmental protection. Which is a very commercially orientated thing to give continuing access and social license for farmers to use certain pesticides. So, each of those groups, even within the Division of Entomology, had quite distinctive cultures and quite distinctive mentalities about how they viewed problems and how they viewed their external forces. I think one of the challenges within a diverse organization public, private is how to hold those subtlety those subtle cultural shifts in equilibrium and how, indeed, you get a private research group talk to a public research group whose cultures and drivers may not be completely aligned.

AH: So, you have this potential difference between the cultures that actually might even come in between on a communication basis. That’s interesting to hear. And so, alongside the culture, it sounds like there’s different clock speeds that are associated with those. Is that something that you think is very different across different cultures?

CB: I think it’s different across cultures. I think it’s different across disciplines and I think it’s different across, if you like, the markets that R & D services. So, just to sort of take each of those in turn, across cultures different groups work at different speeds. That’s just the way that they have evolved as a group of scientists. They may appear more laconic; they may appear more urgent. I think that sort of difference amongst different groups occurs not just in research but even across different groups within any organization. I think, though, that across disciplines is a more fascinating problem. And this is particularly highlighted for someone that moved from the physical sciences to the biological sciences. Biology has this nasty thermodynamic limit of only working at the pace that it works at. Wheat only grows as quick as it grows. It’s not like I can make a larger processing plant and suddenly make the wheat grow quicker. The wheat will only grow as quick as it grows. Biology is limited by its natural growth rates whereas chemistry, which is my background in chemical engineering, well, if we want to make more, we just make more reactors in parallel. It was once said to me that nine women one month pregnant doesn’t give you a baby. So, there’s no way to make biology go quicker,

AH: Right.

CB: Notwithstanding the advances in combinatorial, genetics, metabolomics, that’s all great for understanding, but the wheat plant won’t grow quicker. So, by the extension of that. is that different sciences move at different speeds because they’re limited. So, you might be able to run a chemistry experiment in three days, and it’ll take you three months to run an equivalent biological experiment because you’ve got to grow a plant. So, this, by extension, again, requires different mentalities in the teams, and they just think at different cadences. Industries have different clock speeds too, so you’ve got things like regulatory hurdles and things like capital requirements and the time taken to commission new assets to deliver new products that will also affect industrial clock speeds. And then the challenge then that extends from that is to have an R & D group community that can work into and appreciate the industrial forces at play there. So, whilst we can actually deliver a product at the bench very quickly, it may, in fact, take many, many years before you can do that at scale.

AH: Okay, well, we’ve talked a bit about clock speeds, and we’ve talked about the different scientific disciplines having different clock speed. It brings us quite nicely to that question round the R & D management question, which is, is R & D management, in your view, a science or an art?

CB: Yes, I think you just can drop out R & D. And is management an art or a science? I think the art component, to draw a very, I think, crude distinction, is that R & D management I consider more to be the programmatic aspects of management, -project management, accounting, making sure things happen on time. The art, for want of a better word, I think is the leadership. And it’s the leadership of a particular team or group or particular scale you’re operating at and the external environment in which it operates. And I think therein lies the art around R & D management because there are so many dynamic forces in play around a group and what’s happening around it. So, the art is being able to pick and anticipate where things will move. And sort of ultra-challenge, if you want, around this, is that R & D has to be thinking ahead of where markets are, because the day you turn your first experiment in anger, you’re 10-20 years sometimes away from delivering meaningful commercial results. And I’m being quite deliberate with those choice of words. It’s not that what you’re doing in the interim has no value, not at all. It’s not that it doesn’t have technical merit, or insight, not at all; simply from a commercial perspective and the ability to productize it, you might be a decade away after that first experiment. So, to be able to sit there as an R & D leader and to look at a particular industry or discipline or market trend and think, okay, so where am I landing in five to eight to ten years? And where can I see the resources to underpin my team coming from in that period? That is where the art comes in, that is not inherently knowable. Or if it is knowable, then I urge you to patent it quickly and license it out, because you’ll do very well. So that, to me, is the art.

AH: An awful lot of soft skills in there, leadership skills. And interesting that you’re bringing in the skills of understanding and observing the external environment as well, being equally as important. But those skills, I mean, it sounds, from what you’re saying, that they’re very difficult to teach. They may, as you say, be inherent. Does that mean that we should give up hope if we’re trying to be R & D?

CB: No. Don’t give up hope. No. Don’t give up hope. No. That would be dreadful. No. I think the challenge for the R & D community is to be exposed to these concepts and these issues and be given the opportunity to work through them, work at them. And this may be a gross generalization, but I have observed, many a time, that we take the very finest scientific minds that we can find. We train them rigorously for 15 or 20 years in their technical discipline, and then turn around and say, great, now it’s time for you to lead and manage a team. And we give them no training. They have no techniques or technical skills to tackle these tasks, and yet they are burdened with the responsibility of leading a group of people into the unknown for the next five or ten years. So, I think that far from giving up hope, I think what it is that organizations need to prepare these people differently for those leadership roles and think very differently about how they lead. There is no doubt that technical aptitude is a necessary but insufficient condition for success. And I think what tends to happen is we think that someone who’s technically brilliant can then actually pull off the whole leadership gig, and they may well be able to lead a science team doing science. But that’s not quite what I think you’re asking.

AH: Yeah, it is a challenge, and I think many of us have seen that, haven’t we? That ensuring that leaders of R & D in the future are prepared in the right way. That can be a challenge, taking an expert. Something quite different, actually.

CB: Absolutely. It is a completely separate set of skills. They need to be related to the core of a person and what drives them. But technically it’s not your ability to execute an experiment, it’s your ability to manage people. And there’s a toolkit you can learn, but then it’s about the support and the awareness. And I think one of the things that CSIRO actually did do well in my time there was they had a number of different leadership programs that they executed internally which I was fortunate enough to get on the senior executive one. And if programs like that can be regularly delivered to mid-career scientists to give them that opportunity, the chances of success go up enormously. But if these guys are just thrown in the deep end, their chances are constrained. By no means are they doomed, not at all. And we’re not without hope. But you can certainly increase the odds of success by investing in some development of the people you want to lead your organization. And I’ve seen both the roaring success and catastrophic disasters that come about not doing that well and or doing that well.

AH: So, it’s interesting because to me there seems to be the need for ensuring that the R & D leaders of the future, the R & D managers of the future, have got the right skills. So, they’re gaining new skills, but at the same time, one of the interesting changes that they’ll need to make also is to almost let go. They’re not necessarily needing to be the deep expert in their field. They need to almost allow others to step into what was their old shoes sometimes. And that can be very difficult.

CB: Succession can be difficult. Yeah. And I certainly recognize a lot of the scientists, that I’ve worked with over the years, deep passion for what they do; driven people about what they do. Tough to let go at times, tough to let go. And I do understand that because we all, no matter whether we’re a scientist or otherwise, we do all tend to get a personal attachment to what we do. So, it is difficult to release that. Absolutely. But I think, though, that there’s some other dimensions around that transition too. One of them being that the settings around which we reward performance, possibly need a bit of a rethink, with very good reason. The focus for science delivery is around excellence. Science excellence and publication in high impact journals. And that’s all very appropriate. But we perhaps need to think a little bit, in a slightly more nuanced way, about leadership of broader teams and specific leadership of scientific disciplines. The concept of the general manager versus the chief scientist almost, where there’s an opportunity for scientists to have a career path, excelling in their science and also have a career path for those who choose to lead bigger organizations. There has to be room for both, because I think by not creating both channels you run the risk of compromising everyone.

AH: Yes. And do you find that many organizations that you come across get that balance right? Or is that…

CB: No, that’s a struggle. Again, I noted certainly in my time at Dow and observations of Dupont, who I did some work with over the years, they have found mechanisms to lord scientific excellence as well as, if you like, technology, commercialization excellence. They’ve, I think, correctly identified the benefits of both streams. If we pour a parallel back into the research community, one would be around science excellence, and one might be around management – science management – excellence or might be around external engagement excellence or something of that ilk. But I think some organizations have found the path. But I think those that find a path also have clarity of purpose. Dupont and Dow aren’t in any doubt about why they wake up in the morning, whereas I think a lot of research organizations have the challenge of student with public-good outcomes and finding resources to deliver commercial outcomes and all of a sudden, well, which one today? So, I think clarity of purpose perhaps has allowed organizations like Dow and Dupont to crystallize those two channels and promote the importance of each of them in their broader scheme, whereas perhaps it’s not as clear in some other organizations. So, therefore, it becomes a little bit harder don’t know, tricky, tricky.

AH: Tricky, tricky balance between the commercial innovation and the science. that needs a lot of balance to be struck there. What about external academics? Where can external academics, sort of pure academics in external to private companies fit into the equation?

CB: So, I think to answer that question, I’d like to just go back a step and just reframe the word ‘balance’. I don’t think balance is quite it, Allison. I think it’s an equilibrium and I think that it’s an equilibrium that shuffles from at one quite clear pole, pure curiosity-driven research out to the other end of that equilibrium, which is very mission-directed, applications-driven research. And where I think the challenge is where an individual, a team, a group, an institute sits across that equilibrium at any given time and how it manoeuvers itself across that equilibrium. Some research institutes have the privilege of curiosity-driven research, and away they go. Others are at the other end of the spectrum. I think it’s an equilibrium question. And so, to come back to how academic researchers might fit into that, well, then we need to look across that equilibrium so that if more pure research is being done, people that sit further along the equilibrium can then collaborate that way and find the common ground and the common pathways. I think it’s unusual, certainly not impossible, but it’s unusual for a single person or team to sit right across that spectrum at a given point in time. I think that what tends to happen is you sit somewhere along it and you move along, and you might pass a technology out and then might go back to some point earlier in the cycle. There’s one group that I observed at CSIRO which I think has got as close to excellent as that as I have observed, which is a group involved in plant oil engineering who had been able to over a series and this is almost a 15–20-year journey for them. Where they had managed to start from, I would call mission-directed but basic research, and have been able to move things through a pipeline and move up and down that equilibrium on a reasonably regular basis, and push products out to market and then go back and start again. But they are, I would consider an exemplar of how that works and somewhat of an exception. Again, based on my own experience, I wouldn’t say they’re the only ones in the world, that would be wrong, but they’re as good as I have seen anywhere in the world from a public research institute. And they’ve figured out how to engage with private industry research groups. Or you could argue private industry research groups have figured out how to work with them. Both sides, right? But I think it’s one of the things in terms of an equilibrium, Allison, then tries to place oneself at a certain time point along that equilibrium. Then that gives you a starting point to that conversation about, well, how do I look outwards to partner? What is the next step in the chain for me? If I’m in pure curiosity-driven research, well, where do I find other researchers who might have problems for me to solve? If I’m in the applied space, how do I find researchers that may have uncovered interesting things, curious things, that might help me solve the problem I have? So, I think, and I would contend, that’s perhaps a slightly more useful way of thinking about that engagement from an academic perspective into a commercial environment and indeed, vice versa. Commercial scientists need to look at that equation from the other side.

AH: Yeah. So, really we’re talking…I like this idea of an equilibrium. It’s very dynamic and it gives the impression that any organization needs to sort of navigate that or at least observe where they are on that on that equilibrium. And then that helps you with adjacencies. Where are the adjacencies? And that then allows you to connect in with appropriate collaborations, filling in gaps that you can’t fill yourself. So that’s an interesting thought. Thanks for that. Yeah, it’s been fascinating listening. I just have one other question that I’m interested in hearing your perspective on, and it’s around technology. Is there any particular technology that you can think of that’s really transformed the way that you work?

CB: So, I’m answering this from an experiential point of view, not because I use Apples or Android, so, there is certainly no one example. I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of technologies and what I’ve discovered is that nothing is the same twice. Everything in technology, commercialization, in my view, is bespoke. There may be similarities, there may be parts that are indeed, identical, but there is always a twist and a turn which makes each moment, each transaction unique. If there’s a key learning from doing tech transfer, it’s everything’s different and sort of ride the roller coaster. It is not a merry-go-round; it is a roller coaster. I think another important part of working through it is that deals are not done until they are done. With the very best of intentions and with all of the best relationships and goodwill in the world, externalities do hit you and they hit you and they just stop transactions cold. And it’s not because you did anything wrong. It is not because the technology is no good. It is not because the circumstances are not favorable. Something has come up and it has just stopped you dead in your tracks. But you just have to regather yourself and relook at the situation and go, right, what other pathways are now open to us? You may not be able to strike terms for licensing, for whatever reason, but a technology acquisition, a clean purchase, may actually be a really nice way to do business. And it’s just a question of understanding why you’re in the transaction and then looking at different ways of how you could do it.

AH: Interesting. And so, flexibility is key and that positive mindset to see things through. Interesting and very good advice as well.

CB: Yeah. Resilience is. Necessary condition for success in this business. And certainly, an interesting additional point I’d like to make is the concept of policy. Organizations have policies, really important that everyone understands what everyone else’s policy is. And it seems a bit trivial, but policy matters. And if policies, I think by way of a classical definition, are sort of immutable laws of corporate physics; if it’s a policy, you’re not meant to be able to change it, so you better understand it really early. So, if it turns out that for some reason, we don’t do licenses in Switzerland, you really need to know that before you start negotiating for a license in Switzerland. Whereas preferences have a different take on them. And so, understanding the difference between a policy and a preference can sometimes shape how you go about doing tech transfer.

AH: Right. Knowing the rules of the game before you start.

CB: Knowing the rules. Correct. Yes, that’s it. Knowing the rules. Policies matter and I would encourage both sides to get those policies on the table. Not to be destructive in terms, but to be constructive, to say, hey, this is what I’m working with. I can’t give you this; I can’t give you that. And then everyone can work to solve the problem.

AH: And it’s not always obvious, is it?

CB: No, it’s not.

AH: It’s that communication thing again, isn’t it?

CB: Yes, indeed it is.

AH: Fantastic. Well, thank you very much for your insights. It’s been fascinating listening to you. I think there’s some really great messages to take away there and some very interesting advice and thoughts that you’ve shared with us, given your background and expertise. So once again, Cameron Begley from Spiegare. Thank you very much indeed. It’s been a pleasure being in conversation with you.

CB: Thank you, Alison, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk with you. Thank you.

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