Have you ever thought about great ideas that never happened because their seeds fell on dry ground and turned to dust before taking root? How many incredible ideas are just floating around in the ideasphere waiting for the perfect conditions to exist?

I had the pleasure recently of attending a lecture by
Dr. Walter Powell, “Woody” as he prefers to be called. Powell has studied the growth of the biotech industry from its nascency in 1976 to the present. As a sociologist with interests in economics, Powell and his team have drawn elaborate maps charting the interconnectedness of multiple players in the biotech field.
Through the years they meticulously categorized the types of organizations involved and the contribution each brought to the table. By altering various key connections in hypothetical situations, they have been able to isolate critical elements that accelerated growth in certain areas.

Looking at the data, it’s quite easy to see that in 1976 more than a dozen cities in the United States had some sort of biotech activity. All of these areas of activity were about the same size and blessed with similar advantages such as talent, infrastructure and funding. By 2006 however, all but three regions had been wiped off the map and each of the three remaining – San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego and Boston – had seen growth far beyond the sum of all the others.
Why did some regions grow while others did not? Woody Powell invested more than nine years examining factors that led to exponential success in three regions and nearly total failure for all the others. Many factors he found are related specifically to the biotech industry, but I see at least one that you would benefit by considering.

In each of the three growth regions, Powell observed a healthy ratio of Big City/Small Town behaviors. The mix was different in each area but nonetheless clearly evident.

Have you ever lived in a very small town? The strength of a small town is the trust that’s built among neighbors. There’s familiarity, strong ties, consistency. Small towns aren’t known for innovation or privacy. In a small town, everyone knows what everyone else is doing.  When I lived in a small Wyoming town, people said they bought the local newspaper not to find out what was happening (they already knew), but to see if the paper had all the facts.

On the other hand, big cities promote novelty and diversity. The agglomeration of cultures that happens in cities allows for a synergy of strengths that leads to the development of new ideas.  It’s easy to try something new in a city because if you fail or don’t like it, there’s a chance no one will notice. Camaraderie and loyalty may be scarce but there’s a certain freedom in anonymity.

Powell concludes it wasn’t enough in 1976 to have the presence of biotech activity. Given an equal starting point and similar resources, one strong influencer was the opportunity to build trust among colleagues while maintaining some anonymity during the trial and error process. The agar best suited for growing a successful biotech region included the perfect mix of Big City and Small Town attitudes.
So –

  1. Is your organization more of the big city or a small town?
  2. Do you have departments that function like my wife’s hometown of Rushville, Nebraska or like my hometown of San Francisco?
  3. Does your corporate culture provide the correct functional mix?
  4. Can you identify areas that need to re-zoned?