By Aoife Brennan, CEO of Synlogic Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
Earlier this month, I attended the J.P. Morgan 41st annual Healthcare Conference in San Francisco after a two-year hiatus. Despite the torrential rain and long flight, it was an energizing experience and a reminder of the glue that holds our industry together during tough times –the interpersonal connections and relationships.
On the flight out, I wondered whether things would be different this year. Would investment banks and law firms have their receptions in the same venue at the same time? Would we still crush into packed elevators and pay too much for breakfast? Would there be hugs in the crosswalk as we rush in opposite directions between meetings? Coming home I concluded that between the serious business that happens each January at JPM, there is also a healthy dose of reassuring ritual.
A ritual is an activity or action that heightens the meaning of a particular task but is not specifically related to task performance. The candles, incense and namaste are the difference between a yoga class and a stretch session. In the workplace, I have come to appreciate that rituals can create a sense of belonging and can help foster the teamwork necessary to advance important treatments for patients.
The best rituals are organic and inclusive.
Rituals are not something that we have recently discovered but have been used for as long as humans have existed to build community and get things done. Our small finance team has a ritual of getting together to celebrate each SEC quarterly filing by drinking an Apreol Spritz. I am not a member of that team so I have no idea how it started but I know that reliably, they can be found in a conference room popping prosecco once a quarter. It is a recognition of the hard work behind them and the transition to the next quarter. I know for a fact that not everyone on the team likes Aperol but this has not negatively impacted the ritual.
Rituals can help boost focus when a team task seems daunting.
In a prior role, I was on a team tasked with filing two new drug applications in short succession. Anyone who has been involved in this kind of work can tell you how all-consuming it is for a single team to file an application every few years, but we had to file two within three months of one another. We were in a commercially competitive situation where speed was important, and we did not have the people to field two separate teams.
There were multiple anxious meetings about how we would make it happen where “impossible” came up many times in our conversations. At one point, a colleague referred to the products as the “terrible twins” and just like that, a big workplace ritual took off. We referred to the meeting room as labor and delivery, we color coded the documents blue and pink, we shared pictures of ourselves as babies and we made the impossible possible.
Rituals can help during difficult times.
Being Irish, the wake is a familiar cultural ritual. It is a sad event, but it surprises many outsiders that there is also a lot of laughing, singing and storytelling. What this experience has taught me over the years is the importance to process difficult things, not just bury them quietly and move on. In our industry, establishing rituals for failed studies, for programs that need to be discontinued and celebrating departing team members can help us process these tough situations. Just as death is part of life, failure is part of science and change is part of building a company.
Rituals can help cope with an unpredictable world.
Rituals can provide a source of predictability and constancy in an otherwise unpredictable world. They have been shown to help reduce anxiety levels in those about to preform high-risk tasks. 2022 was a challenging year for biotech. On top of the usual scientific and biology risks we are accustomed to, the industry was dealt many macro-economic blows that were difficult to predict this time last year.
Did schlepping between the various hotels around Union Square during JPM provide a sense of grounding ahead of 2023? I personally enjoyed the return to San Francisco and found the meetings energizing and productive. It forced the team to leave 2022 behind and to move forward into the new year with more determination than ever.
Between transcribing my copious notes from meetings and reflecting on what I learned, I realized how much I missed the quirky, fun, in-person connections. In a world where chatGPT will be writing my future blog posts and we are all focused on efficiency, it is important to leave space for our human emotions and need for rituals. As leaders, we need to not just tolerate them but actively participate and encourage them. Sure, we can get the job done without them in the short-term but longer-term progress, innovation, solving some of the biggest problems likely depends on our ability to connect and build community.
Sign me up for JPM ’24!!