Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Innovators and Perfectionists

by Dr. Ray Nims

In a previous posting, Leah Choi described her frustration over the lack of specific training, received during her undergraduate schooling, in aspects germane to the realities of employment within the biopharmaceutical industry. Employment in the highly regulated world of biopharmaceutical manufacturing, Quality, and Quality Control (biopharmaceutical operations) requires different skills and employee temperaments compared to employment within the research and development (R&D) world. The academic institutions would do well to consider this during the preparation of students for eventual life in the working world.

What do we mean by different skills and employee temperaments? Most of us are familiar with the Myers and Briggs personality typing instrument which looks at attibutes like intro/extraversion, sensing, intuition, etc. This instrument provides interesting and revealing information about how different people deal with the world. In addition to the qualities addressed by Myers & Brigg, however, there is a personality spectrum which I will refer to as Innovation ↔ Perfection.

In the R&D world, technical knowledge, mastery of the literature concerning a subject, and most importantly, innovation are the attributes which are essential for success. A researcher must long to travel untraveled paths, to uncover new ground, to learn and often develop methods where such may not have existed previously (i.e., to go where no man has gone before). Those who are well suited to this environment we refer to as innovators. The academic institutions are pretty good at fostering these attributes in students.

On the other hand, the highly regulated areas of biopharmaceutical operations require individuals who are capable of following set instructions time after time, documenting their work in a precise and strictly controlled manner. Innovation, improvisation, and experimentation with mature methodologies and standard operating procedures are not encouraged. A mind-set which is compatible with achieving perfect compliance with documented procedures is the key to success in this environment. Such individuals we refer to as perfectionists, as they are motivated by the desire (or if not desire, at least the requirement) to conduct their work exactly as proscribed. It is this particular set of attributes which many academic programs fail to address adequately. This leaves employers with the task of training their entry-level staff in such matters, and (as Leah mentioned in her posting) students with the sometimes shocking revelation that they are poorly prepared for this type of employment.

Are there individuals who can be successful both as “innovators” and as “perfectionists”? Undoubtedly so! It is more likely, however, that most people fit within a spectrum falling between the two temperaments. I, for instance, have always regarded myself more of a perfectionist than an innovator, happily conducting the same assay the 100th time and still trying to do a better job than the last time. I know of others who, as soon as they learn a method, are bored with it and anxious to move on to something new. These temperaments may be determined by our personalities and may not be subject to alteration. It would appear to be valuable for academic programs to try, therefore, to determine the temperaments of their students, and to provide training suitable and appropriate for both the innovators and the perfectionists. Both the students as well as the biomedical industry would benefit from a little temperament triage and curriculum adjustment done at the undergraduate level.

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