Important Questions That Move Us Forward

by Susan Nemetz, November 2017
Sue at TED

I had two reasons for attending TEDMED in Palm Springs earlier this month. First, I wanted to be inspired! Second, I wanted to learn more about technology innovation in healthcare as I have an idea that is percolating. I am happy to report that the conference delivered on both counts!

When it comes to choosing which learning conferences to attend, I confess that I tend to stick to those that are industry-focused, events like the FDA/CMS Summit or various MassBio forums. This year, however, and thanks in no small part to the willingness of my dear friend and professional colleague Abbie, who was also eager to step outside the day-to-day execution mode, I chose to take a chance on something different.

The experience was superb. Two full days of insight, discovery and learning, all wrapped in a warm and inspiring community of professionals.

Words cannot describe the scope and depth of the topics covered in the program which will be available online soon. I will, however, share the theme of this year’s TEDMED: “LIMITLESS — where barriers and limitations meetunbounded vision and infinite possibilities.” Indeed, from the moment we arrived at the conference center, nearly everything centered around the question, “What if there were no limits and we could think/act differently?”

This simple notion kept coming up, causing me to pause, and think, several times throughout the experience. In the end, I came away with three questions, all of which relate to what we do each day in our biopharma industry:

Question #1: How can we support each other to be more courageous?

Many of the speakers had been fearless in their ability to seek out innovative solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems: Drone deliveries of emergency blood supplies in West Africa; training public library staff to treat the opioid overdoses they frequently encounter; and developing technical solutions that allow sight-impaired individuals to participate in our increasingly photo- and video-based world. Closer to our industry, talks on the power of the microbiome, the ethics of CRISPR, and the intractable conflicts inherent in drug development and pricing.

On the subject of courage, what also impressed me were the speakers themselves. Addressing an audience of more than 800 people, each speaker presented “TED Talk-style” — no notes with minimal visuals. Many were experienced TED Talk speakers and held the audience with rapt attention. But there were also many people who messed up lines, got lost in the middle, or completely forgot what they were trying to say. Some had to go back to the very beginning to start again, often with a timid laugh. It was incredibly heartbreaking and awkward to watch; you know they practiced hard, but nerves took over.

Each time this happened, I glanced around at the faces, illuminated by the stage-lit theatre. I saw nearly everyone in the audience smiling and nodding, encouraging the speakers to get back on track. When they did and finally finished, the audience would break out into raucous cheers and applause, supporting them for their courage and willingness to fail.

It made me wonder: How can we do more of this within our organizations? How can we help each other take more chances, try new things, face more fears? What are we losing in terms of innovation and creativity by not supporting our peers to act without limits?

Question #2: How can we create an environment in which people can focus and listen?

I’ve been to countless conferences over the years; I’m sure you have too. They all feel the same. The environment at TEDMED was jarringly different.

The “theater” was a ballroom filled with a variety of cushy, comfortable chairs and couches. The room was laid out in a semi-circle so that you could see other audience members in addition to the speakers. The lighting was calm and warm. As a listener, you knew your only job was to pay attention and learn — no multi-tasking allowed. Clearly, the TEDMED organizers understand that the environment in which the work gets done has a significant impact on both the experience and the results.

So where is the opportunity within our organizations to do the same? How, like TEDMED, can we tweak our surroundings to create a community and best accommodate the humans who work within it?

Question #3: How can we encourage diverse points of view?

Throughout the conference, I was struck by the sheer diversity of it all. There was a tremendous range of ages, races, and nationalities present. I met students, academics, technologists, scientists, consultants, and business professionals. Sometimes I felt like the wise mentor; other times I felt like that naïve young woman I was when attending my first sales training session a few (gulp) decades ago.

As a result of the diverse everything, the presentations, sideconversations and perspectives shared were unlike those I encounter in my “normal” work life. I found myself flooded with new ideas and insights on an hourly basis. Interestingly, it wasn’t only the brilliance of these people. It was that their experiences and points of view were so different from mine that I couldn’t help but be awakened.

Can we introduce more diversity into the way we work? The people with whom we interact or the external environment we track? The ideas we label “good” or “bad”? The books we read or the forums we seek out? If “best practice” is the only measure of success, how can we truly hope to change the world significantly and for the better?

More questions than answers

These are just three of the many questions I brought home with me – I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I do know one thing: Doing what we’ve always done, the way we’ve always done it, is not the fast-track to “breaking through barriers and realizing infinite possibilities.”

For that, we need to ponder bigger questions, inspire courage every day and, if my own experience is any indication, attend more “diverse” conferences!


P.S. In prep for their presentations and as part of their introductions, the speakers were asked to respond to a number of questions. My favorite was this: “If you could have an unlimited supply of anything, what would it be?”

Please reply to this email with your answer (we’ll share some of them next month)!