Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Importance of Risk

The University of Rhode Island and CVS/Caremark Corporation celebrated our long-standing partnership last week in the new College of Pharmacy building.  It was abundantly clear throughout the festivities that this has been an enormously productive and beneficial partnership for both institutions. 
Larry Merlo, the CEO of CVS/Caremark, spoke with pharmacy students during the morning. They were paying close attention, and one of Mr. Merlo’s points seemed especially well received.  He said, in essence, “do not fear failure”. In order to innovate we must, he pointed out, accept the risk that not everything we attempt will succeed.  Exactly right. Success, and high levels of performance, are not equivalent to, and do not require, perfection. Perfection is an unattainable goal, but success and leadership are not.  CVS/Caremark has distinguished itself both by its success and its leadership within the industry.  There can be little doubt that these achievements are related to the company’s willingness to accept the risks of occasional failure in order to be consistently innovative.
I learned a very similar lesson in a different way.  As a first-year graduate student in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, I was privileged to join the research laboratory of Professor Harry B. Gray – one of America’s (and the world’s) most distinguished researchers in chemistry.  Harry had (and has) a global reputation for being one of the most brilliant and innovative research scientists in the field of chemistry.  As a 22 year-old I was certainly aware of his success and leadership, but only later when I was starting my own career did I fully realize what an honor it was to work with Harry. 
Needless to say, the standards and expectations in Harry’s lab were extremely high, and largely self-imposed by the members of his research group. Harry had set an extremely high standard for himself and all of us wanted our work to be as close to that standard as we could possibly achieve.  So I was very pleased when one of my first projects went very well and led in a relatively short time to publication in the Journal of the American Chemical Society – one of the world’s most prestigious journals for research in chemistry.  Moreover, it was published as a “communication” – a mode reserved for work deemed especially interesting and timely.  It was my first scientific paper.
The paper did receive a fair amount of attention, which, of course, made me even happier.  One reason for the attention was that the experiments had been carried out on a unique instrument (really, there was only one such instrument in the world at the time, if I remember correctly) that existed in the Physics Department at the University of Rome.  The instrument in Rome (a magnetometer, i.e. it measures magnetism) was based on one invented in the Physics Department at Caltech and which utilized a SQUID – not calamari but a “superconducting quantum interference device”. This sounds like something Sheldon would say on the Big Bang Theory, but I assure you it’s quite real.  
Several months after the paper appeared we got a call from a new company in San Diego that had built a SQUID-based magnetometer and wanted us to come down and test it. So, I prepared some new samples, drove from Pasadena to San Diego (a distance considered minor in CA and nearly impossible to Rhode Islanders), met my new colleagues, and started work. 36 hours later I knew, without any doubt whatsoever, that the results in my first paper were simply, and completely, wrong.  It was a very long drive back.
I was embarrassed: my first published work was wrong and worse, I had let down my mentor and PhD advisor.  I needed to tell Harry as soon as possible so I just walked into his office (his door was nearly always open) showed him the new data, and summarized the analysis. I started to apologize; he stopped me mid-way through. “Come with me”, he said. He walked into his library, opened a file cabinet, and pulled out a reprint of an early paper of his.  “See this”, he said, “it’s one of my first papers as an assistant professor at Columbia. And it’s wrong. Worse, it was one of my scientific competitors who demonstrated that fact.” 
Then Harry said, “Dave, you’ll never do anything important if you’re not willing to be wrong.”  I’ve never forgotten that. It was, and still is, the most valuable piece of wisdom that Harry ever shared with me – and I cannot calculate the value of all the knowledge and wisdom he provided.
I think it is simply true that unless you are willing to accept the risk of being wrong, the risk of failure, you are very unlikely to do anything innovative or important.  This is true, I believe, for individuals as well as organizations.  We should always strive for excellence, but if perfection is the goal, then neither perfection nor excellence will be achieved.  So thank you Harry, and thank you, Larry, for sharing that wisdom in 1977 and in 2013.