An article appeared in The Wall Street Journal about Pfizer’s development of the COVID-19 vaccine. I’m using Pfizer’s good work to contrast how hard it is to know when good work is being done. This article talks about the incredible drive and determination of pharmaceutical companies to roll out a vaccine in less than a year. It focuses on Pfizer, but there will be case studies about many pharmaceutical companies around the world who were successful at producing a vaccine in a short period of time.
The article shows how Pfizer’s CEO faced the difficulty of pushing his teams to find faster ways of doing things without breaking any rules or crossing any ethical gray lines.
Case studies on solving a problem employees don’t yet know how to solve
It’s very laudatory and positive about what Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies have done. It’s amazing to see how they did it, the challenges they faced and how they stepped up to those challenges. But there’s a reason why this theme is called the myth of case studies and best practices. The business press has many stories about successful companies, whether it’s Tesla, whether it’s SpaceX, and companies that have been through some difficulties like Wells Fargo, and even companies that haven’t survived because a difficulty took them down. Across all these stories, all these case studies, you’ll consistently see that management puts a lot of pressure on employees—pressure that can break them down and cause employees to react in ways they did not think were possible. These stories consistently show management pressure on employees to solve a problem they don’t yet know how to solve. By pushing back and telling employees they wants more, management expects that employees will step up to the occasion and solve the problem.
This is almost a binary approach. In some companies, when management puts pressure on employees, employees respond by cutting corners because they don’t believe they can do something better, legally and ethically. Cutting corners leads to fines, problems with customers and a tarnishing of the company’s reputation. In other situations, employees step up. They say, “Management says we need to do this in a different way. We’re not going to cook the books or change the data. We’re not going to cut corners. We’re going to figure out how to do it and rise to the occasion.”
The question becomes: What drives employees to make that decision—in that moment—to rise to the occasion, or to fiddle the numbers?
What the best practice is or what’s the best case study to follow
This is why it’s so hard to know what the best practice is or what’s the best case study to follow. You want to know what makes an employee under pressure do the difficult task of reconfiguring all their work to develop a new way to solve a problem—versus an employee who decides it’s too much pressure, I will cross the line and when it is eventually investigated I am going to tell everyone that management put too much pressure on me.
Then the question becomes: When is the pressure too much? It’s almost like a dance where management needs to put pressure on employees to force them to do new and better things because that’s capitalism—you have to do new and better things to stay in business. But at the same time, employees need to know that if they cannot do it, maybe they shouldn’t be in the company. “Should I be cooking the books? Should I be changing things just to make it look like I’m making progress?” If you can’t do something, eventually you’ll be caught.
I think that’s the challenge, and that’s the deep insight. We read many great examples of successful companies, but it all comes down to pressure from management and employees rising to the challenge. What are the ingredients that create an environment where employees rise to the challenge? I don’t think it’s just the employee’s fault when they say they were forced to cook the books. They shouldn’t do that, obviously, but sometimes management can put too much pressure on employees. Of course, an employee in that position should resign or convince management to change direction, but I think there’s fault on both sides.
You have one of three options
As you, an FC Insider, think about how you use all of our content, books and videos to rise to the occasion, and as you take on tasks that solve mankind’s most difficult problems, it’s not going to be easy. You’re going to be under intense pressure. You have one of three options: 1) You don’t deliver but you take a shortcut—which we don’t recommend that you do. 2) You deliver and you find new ways of doing it. 3) Maybe you decide this is not the role for you. You can’t do it, so you decide to let someone else step in and take over.
Be careful of reading about great stories and case studies of companies that have done enormous things—because at the end of the day, those employees were under a lot of pressure. And you need to know how they were able to rise to that pressure.
This is an excerpt from Monday Morning 8 a.m. newsletter, issue #10.
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