Five Lessons Immunex Taught Me

11/28/11

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with doors that closed. These were useful for holding impromptu meetings with collaborators or for finding a quiet place to read a journal article.

Around the same time we were beginning to realize that growth was hurting information flow, we ran out of office space. So upper management decided we would move into another building next door and provide cubicles for the scientific staff, instead of offices.

Unfortunately, they failed to effectively communicate this decision to the scientists before it was made. When the researchers heard that some scientists would still have offices while others would have small, almost public cubicles, there was a lot of emotion. ‘Others’ were making decisions that affected ‘our’ work without talking with us. It seemed as though the egalitarian atmosphere of the company was disappearing.

The researchers got together to decide what to do. Gillis was present and, demonstrating his ability to focus on the important things, stated that the decision had been made and Immunex was moving forward. Delay was never an option.

And kill it was not going to be an option here. But a change of direction was still possible – maybe we could find a creative way to produce usable cubicles instead of the generic ones planned.

If the scientists could come up with something that satisfied us and also satisfied the corporate needs, go ahead. He gave us about a week.

It actually became a great experience, with several of us working hard to find a workable compromise between space and privacy.

We added a few extra walls to provide some privacy. But they were still too low, allowing anyone standing up to see everyone else.

We brought in an acoustic specialist who told us how sound works and how to muffle it with foam. We came up with the novel idea of putting colored plexiglass extensions on top of the walls with a tube of foam on top. It not only blocked everyone’s view but also provided really good soundproofing.

We ended up creating just as many cubicles as the company needed but with much more privacy.

Instead of telling us that they had made a decision and that was that, live with it, the management of Immunex wanted us to adapt their decision so that it would work for all.

Management wanted our creativity to be used on this problem. And they supported that creativity.

It was one of the smartest management decisions I thought Immunex ever made. Like some form of judo, our emotional responses were harnessed to find innovative solutions to a facilities problem.

And, as I recall, the design of the cubicles won an award. Not too bad for an insurrection.

5) Vet everything in the open. Then vet it again. The increasing size of Immunex began to make information flow too sluggish to arrive at good decisions. So we developed novel ways to exchange the needed data in ways that enhanced our abilities to innovate and make decisions.

Unlike many companies, we openly examined every research project in depth every four months. We leveraged our management infrastructure to create a matrixed system, one where department heads responsible for budgets of multiple projects butted heads with project chairs whose projects worked across departments.

After going through all the projects, the management would prioritize each project based on resources, money, etc. Then four months later we would do it again.

This sort of competitive conflict helped focus our scarce resources.

But initial problem because of those limited resources was that too often the process became a zero sum game – for one project to get ahead, another one needed to be cut. As we got larger and information flow degraded, things like politicking and personality began to encroach on decision points rather than purely objective, empirical information.

The process increased the chances of making poor decisions.

So, in typical Immunex fashion, we applied our own creative approaches to an internal company process, enhancing the information gathering aspects of the process and permitting decision points to be more effectively reached.

We did this by opening up the process, making the vetting transparent and finding a way to prevent some the adversarial aspects of this approach from overpowering our decisions.

Before the meeting, every project was assigned a chaperone – a neutral department head who would sit down with the project chair before the review and go over the progress, ask questions about problems and get a good idea of what was going on. Then at the meeting, the chaperone would introduce the project and discuss the relevant information, not the project chair.

Attention was thus directed to the chaperone – a department head – rather than the project chair. In fact, the project chair was often there to answer questions, not to defend the project. We could focus on the science.

By now having both a department head and a project chair driving the discussion, the entire dynamic of the meetings changed from an adversarial form – department heads vs. project chairs – into a more collegial one – committed people all striving for the same goal.

As time went on – because of their excellent ability to transfer information – we made these meetings open to anyone. Many employees at all levels could sit in on them just to get quickly up to date on all the projects.

This added vetting provided all sorts of benefits. Entirely new information that had not been known to either the project chairs or department heads would come out. Some of the discussions sparked entirely new directions of research.

It became easier for us to all move in the same direction, together.

More than anything else we did at Immunex, I believe these meetings overcame many of the growth problems we had experienced.

But they did so much more, because they leveraged the large increase in size Immunex had undergone to allow a much larger and more diverse group of creative minds to examine major research decision points.

In some ways, it allowed us to attack a much wider and more complex set of problems than when we were only 50 people.

Open vetting did more than bring the best of the insurrectional minds at Immunex to bear on a problem. It also put all the information out in the open, permitting all of us to understand why a decision was made.

Now when the decisions – move forward, kill it, change direction – were made for each project, people were pretty much in agreement because they could see the rationale for the decision. They had seen the information presented; their concerns had been heard by all. They understood.

It was not one group deciding what another group would do. The vetting was not a zero-sum game of project death matches but a consensus-driven community united in its goals.

This process actually reduced the “fog of war” problems found when dealing with complex biological systems, even as we got larger.

Openness can enhance all the other lessons.

These lessons I learned are interconnected. The handicaps of a large company can be overcome by increasing openness and leveraging creativity, in order to enhance information flow. The faster information gets to the right people, the faster the company can move out of the gray and towards decision points that are successful.

Any company that can utilize these 5 lessons will be well on the way to a successful and important one. And its influence will not wane, even if it disappears from the Web.

Immunex proves that.

Richard Gayle is the founder and president of SpreadingScience. Follow @

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  • Tina Hoffman

    Thank you for this post. I was at Immunex only a short time, as a contract administrative assistant. However, I remember that Immunex decisiveness very well, and I have yet to find it’s equal.