Monthly Archives: March 2013

Fostering Innovation in R&D Projects

In any development work that involves uncertainty, like all R&D projects, there are diverse influencers that contribute to success or failure. Perhaps most fundamental to success are the skills of creativity in problem resolution, and the tenacious commitment to incremental progress. R&D team members are usually good at embracing uncertainty by their nature, and are often fuelled by the endorphin release that accompanies success in conquering barriers that block their way.

But jobs are not static things, and when a researcher occupies a role in an organization for a significant time, there are weights that begin to bear upon them. Some of the more predictable ones are:

  • Solving the same problem multiple times
  • Evolution from innovation to maintenance
  • Repeated cancellation of the same project
  • The distant carrot – a project that is always put off until later.

These challenges are not new, just as keeping creative people in a productive mindset is not a new challenge. Decades ago, research into R&D management explored and reported on the need to keep contributors motivated, productive and engaged.  Many of the same pressures remain, though modern R&D development sees many of the identified factors on a compressed scale.  With development innovative staffcycles shrinking, many pressures arise, make their impact and disperse more quickly.  It’s interesting that some of the remedies proposed as management strategies in older analyses have been adopted organically by individual contributors themselves, almost as a by-product of quickened pace of development (or arguably the fire behind it?).

In Jain and Triandis (ref 3) there is an interesting section dealing with keeping researchers at the Innovation stage of their engagement.  The premise is that a contributor goes through three stages – socialization, innovation and stabilization.  The time scales described ( back in the 70’s and 80’s) seem humorous now. They suggest that the stabilization period arises six to eight years after assuming a given position.  In many fields of R&D today, particularly outside of academia, entire companies and product sectors come and go well within that time period. Contributors may find themselves working in a handful of two or three year engagements within a decade, and the team which has been working together with a stable cohort of members for more than a couple of years is rare.  Still, there is value in the analysis juxtaposed into our modern ecosystem.

The research cited suggests finding ways to prolong the innovation stage, and a few helpful ideas are quoted.

Changing up supervisory roles was an advocated remedy.  Interestingly the suggestion wasn’t lateral shifting of leaders between projects, but rather a rotation of technical staff into and out-of the leadership role.  The idea is that if an R&D manager expects to be back in an individual contributor role in a few years, they will make more effort to stay technically engaged.  And, once back in that role, they will renew their technical chops so that upon a future rotation into leadership, they bring enhanced technical knowledge.

This approach is often somewhat unfeasible, as for some leaders the transition would be seen as a demotivating demotion.  Similarly, those contributing in a leadership role will rise to that position based on cultivated leadership skills.  There is an experience as a technical contributor where one has had increasing project impact to the point where they cannot physically do more as an individual. By moving to direct multiple contributors enables further continuity in contribution and thus business impact. Shifting someone who profitably wield the ‘synergistic’ power of a team back into an individual contributor role leaves them contributing reduced value, which can be demotivating.

Furthermore, lean contemporary R&D groups are much less built out of cookie-cutter skills sets these days.  Specialized knowledge and career paths mean movement of people between roles is less likely to be possible.  There is certainly value in cross-training, and developing technical breadth, but some contributors are disinterested in inout_the_doorvolvement in other tracks.  In a competitive employment market, attempting to push a contributor into a different area for breadth-enhancement may result in loss of a contributor.

Still, there is value in the changes proposed for sustaining the innovation phase, and modern start-up culture demonstrates this.  There today commonly exists a self-managing process that provides benefits similar to the role transitions advocated between hands-on contributor into leadership and back.  As a new venture progresses from concept to product, those involved in early stage phase will often become leaders of a growing work-force. An innovative product emerges in prototype and matures into prime-time adoption.  Those involved often find that the culture of a nascent venture is very different than that of a going-concern and they will eventually move away from the original product to be involved either in new exploratory projects that are complementary, or into new ventures all together.  These contributors who evolved from technical hands-on explorers into team leadership and later back into innovative development of the next big thing, preserve their innovative phase perpetually.  A case in point is Vint Cerf, who decades ago was instrumental in defining the original Internet protocol is currently involved in the interplanetary internet, innovatively defining a future-proof data communications for a hostile and time-dilated environment.

An advocacy of structured sabbaticals for researchers is also encouraged in Jain and Triandis.  As the authors note, large corporations often preach that “people are their most important playing_in_the_windresource” yet are hesitant to absorb the costs associated with sabbatical leaves, even though it is widely recognized that researchers who can recharge their perspective and develop new skills are more valuable contributors.  Google famously encourages employees using 20% of their time on a side-project relevant to the business. Other businesses are taking a page from this playbook as well, integrating innovative time into the schedule.

In the absence of such programs in most companies, the rapid innovation cycle has brought an equivalent to the innovative class.  The more cyclic modern career trajectory means that role changes occur frequently, exposing one to more new projects, and as well to opportunities to explore engaging in start-up ventures. These transitions serve a similar function to the sabbatical concept – detaching from a corporate environment, and immersing oneself in a new idea or exciting experiment.

In both managing other people and our own career paths, we should think about the opportunities for fostering innovation and creativity, as well as giving contributors a path to recharge and stay current. Can we add some discontinuity? Can we employ sabbaticals?  Can we cycle the roles of highly-productive employees without jeopardizing their participation?

Planning an R&D Project – Eight Risks to Success

Launching an R&D project towards a successful outcome begins with structured planning. But how to plan the planning? Okay, that’s a little recursive and obtuse, but seriously, it does require some thought.

What are the characteristics of our project?  By the nature of our project being defined as R&D (as per previous posts on the topic) we already know that achieving a desirable outcome is uncertain.  Should we persevere and succeed, we solve a specific problem or address an opportunity.  Furthermore, we have a desire to achieve a commercially-viable application of what we learn from the project.

There are projects upon which one may wish to embark  that do not fit our criteria, but as previously discussed, those may be more accurately deemed pure “research” or  just incremental “development.”  Elements of this discussion may or may not apply in such situations.

The risks embodied in the uncertain nature of the R&D activity require special attention in the planning process.  These risks take many forms, such as:

  1. the path to a solution may follow false trails
  2. the team may achieve a false solution
  3. the attainment of a solution might not be recognized
  4. a solution may be impossible with current science and technology
  5. a solution may be impossible with the skills and knowledge available to the team
  6. a solution may be inaccessibly expensive for the team to achieve
  7. the team may achieve a competitively inferior solution
  8. the solution may be wrapped in difficult intellectual property ownership

These are diverse risks but with each comes remedial actions for which we can window_cleanersprepare at the planning stage, along with associated responses that can be applied as signs emerge that one of those pitfalls is emerging.
Let’s consider these risks in order.

False trails are a particular challenge. The probability of such an occurrence increases with lack of experience in the team or researcher.  The best management of this risk, beyond seeking a more experienced contributor, is through managing schedule, deliverables and communications.  By crafting a schedule that includes regular checkpoints along the way, warning signs can most easily be noted.  Of course, while we follow steps toward a goal which may be solution of an unknown form, it’s reasonable that the path to that destination may itself not be well articulated.  By investing effort in pre-project exploration with a directive to create a description of projects intermediate and likely-final goals, and as well to describe the characteristics of a solution in broad strokes, the risk of the finding the project on a false-trail is greatly reduced.  The plan can build on the pre-project work to raise the confidence in success, and to make mid-project deliverables more relevant.

False solutions are a plague which is perhaps the greatest risk.  Included in this risk, let’s consider also item 3 – the situation where attainment of a solution is not recognized.  Again, within the planning phase, care must be taken to gain sufficient knowledge of the path to, or towards, a solution and recognize what might be considered false positives and false negatives in our outcome.  Attention should be paid to having a conversation about the characteristics of a solution.  What tests can be done to anoint an outcome as a solution to the original problem?  Has the original problem/goal itself been clearly articulated. Remember that a problem definition and a solution definition are not the same thing.  Forgetting that significantly raises the probability of risks 2 and 3.

stackedWrenchesRisk items 4, 5 and 6 are similar in that they describe barriers to attaining a solution.  In market-centric R&D we often call these ‘barriers to entry.‘   These can, in some circumstances, be just as good friends later on as they are foes during the project.  Should we overcome these barriers with great effort, or if we should face an opportunity that we are, for one of these reasons, unable to crack, these barriers will be the obstacles that similarly hold back competitive forces. In the latter situation, where we fail to reach a solution, these barriers may ensure that our lack of a solution is compounded by a competitors who finds one and excludes us from the market.

Remedial action to avoid these three risks come with varying levels of difficulty.  Where scientific/technological impossibilities hold us back, the important element is being able to recognize the situation in a timely manner.  To further to articulate and capture the associated observations is important, because we might later recognize through the onward march of innovation that something previously impossible has been enabled, and the associated opportunities with it.

When required skills and knowledge are lacking in the team, recognizing this in the planning stage means that prompt acquisition of talent can remove that barrier.  Where the cost of a solution may be prohibitive, early recognition of that issue, means effort is best directed towards funding acquisition or partnerships as keys to launching a successful project.  I’ve seen projects launched without enough ‘runway’ to get an outcome off the ground. Resources dwindle and it is a demoralizing way to bring a project to an end.

Attaining a competitively inferior solution is a risk not uncommon in early-stage start-ups. A lack of awareness, often due to enthusiastic blindness, can be the result when unbridled excitement about a goal causes a launch of activity before a thorough analysis of the competitive space and proper preparation has been done.  Successful planning should involve a careful comparison of the characteristics of a solution against the broken_chaincurrent state-of-the-market.   Ensuring that eyes are directed broadly is important.  It’s not unheard-of that a solution to your opportunity in a particular market exists already, or perhaps even in some parallel market segment that you hadn’t considered.  Designing a fancy $50 spice grinder kitchen product becomes a failure when the market discovers a $2 stainless-steel woodworker’s rasp does the same thing.

Finally let’s consider the risks around intellectual property which adds complexity to innovation in our modern technology-rich world. If your desired goal is to find a solution in a crowded or high-profile market segment, be cognizant that critical elements of the technology may be well wrapped in patent protection. This need not preclude participation in the space, but it may require some careful planning.  Licensing may be necessary for elements of your solution.  Ownership of some facets of the solution by hostile competitors may make them inaccessible.  This is also good reason to explore protection of your intellectual property as it is developed as well.  Again – planning makes this manageable.  Schedule in a review or ‘harvesting’ of innovations that may be conceived or demonstrated at mid-points of the project.  Coach team members to keep notes on ideas, even if ancillary to the core project goals.  Often these may be forgotten as progress takes the path in another direction.

Similarly, at the conclusion of a project, I’ve had good results from spending a day or afternoon with R&D-team members and a patent lawyer to mine the outcomes for innovations suitable for patent protection.

Patents are valuable as protection for your competitive position, but often as revenue opportunities for your business as well. Not only through licensing or out-right sale, but often (in larger organizations) they contribute towards possible cross-licensing opportunities between competitors which may avoid an otherwise “wild west” of litigation in a crowded space.

This is a cursory look at some primary risks in R&D projects and how consideration at the early stage of a project can make them manageable as work progresses.

Planning, Motivation and Rewards in R&D

These three elements are important parts of R&D programs, regardless of whether a project phase is skewed more towards the “R” or the “D” side of the spectrum. Each topic can be treated independently with an entire book’s-worth of depth, and each will be the subject of future blog posts, but a cursory discussion here is prudent to examine how they interlink.

The base of literature that I’ve read in the R&D management field has a varied approach to these topics, but I’ve noted that rarely do they combine them to look at the interplay at a project outset. Planning a project is most often treated from a very structured date-and-milestone-setting perspective. Scheduled meetings, itemized rankings of on-target versus slipping,  red-flags, yellow flags, mid-point reviews of the plan are all the norm. That approach also feeds into the not-always-successful “project-manager-as-an-isolated-role” philosophy that has become common in the R&D management psyche in recent years.  Under generally applied PM theory, an individual, often with only cursory understanding of the subject under consideration, will track a list of deliverables against schedules and perform the associated data-capture and pestering behaviours to push a project forward and chart the progress. The result is a decoupling of conceiving and planning from tracking and oversight.calendar

In theory the project manager will filter the information from the front lines into charts for the program director. The motivation is that the director can direct a wider number of projects with a clear view of project status, gathered with low effort, from whence decisions can be made without all the messiness of interacting with the individual contributors to the project on a daily basis.

Where this falls apart is that often the project manager is neither a subject expert, nor holder of directing authority. The somewhat confrontational element to the PM role erects a barrier between team members and the PM office, and creates a less than positive dynamic. From the individual contributors perspective, the project manager has regular interactions asking

  1. where you are on these deliverables?
  2. are you still on track for your milestones?
  3. why aren’t you on track on some deliverables?
  4. I want you to work harder to meet this date

All these have the hallmarks of authority, judgement and control over the individual’s work, yet complexity in the “why” answers may often be lost on the project manager, due to lack of depth in the subject at hand.  This becomes apparent to both players quickly, causing defensiveness in the PM and frustration for the researcher/developer.

The interaction creates work-stress and loathing of the impending interaction where these questions will arise. These stressors possibly coupled with the interrogator having only cursory subject knowledge and a low-rank on the totem-pole of the meritocracy can result in conflict for an R&D team.

The on-going tracking of progress is important in managing an R&D program, but it is equally important that the management process be sensitive and dynamic in dealing with the uncertainties of the project. Indeed, the uncertain nature of R&D work should have contingency elements in the original plan. It’s a delicate balance for an R&D director to trade-off productivity-expectations in solving challenges and retain tolerance for dealing with uncertainty.

roadblockA counter-intuitive notion is that uncertainty, and road-blocks to progress, should be seen as positive elements in projects that ultimately hope to deliver commercial advantage. Each difficulty is a particular barrier to competition, a point at which a less-worthy adversary may be left behind, assuming your team is able to persevere and progress to a solution.

Thus we recognize that motivation during a project requires pre-planning that accommodates a suitable level of uncertainty. But also required is an ability in the manager to guide, discuss, and appreciate the challenges that arise. To make judgment calls about a difficulty that requires support and coaching, versus one that requires simply more committed effort from the researcher/developer.

As part of that, a manager needs to have a body of experience which enables the coaching and support that aids an individual through the challenge at hand. These are typically drawn from experience with subject-specific knowledge, but more generally a seasoned manager brings transferable techniques that can be independent of the current subject. A breadth of experience, and balance in applying directing and supporting behaviours are sometimes discussed in management theory. (This also forms the basis of techniques of “situational leadership.”)

friends handsNow this part is important – The strength and cohesion of a team is built on how these barrier-situations are handled. When they are managed through a collaborative process, by leaders with the right balance of authority and responsibility, successes that are achieved build a foundation for the organization on which strong future projects are built.

When directing behaviours without coaching/supporting behaviours are applied with a contributor who is facing unfamiliar territory, or worse, when schedule-centric behaviours decoupled from subject-matter knowledge or coaching ability are applied, foundations are eroded.

A strong planning tool is to ensure there are enough mid-project milestones to detect a project getting off-the-rails early, rather than having a surprise days before a long-term project is supposed to deliver results. From a motivation and reward, perspective, the director should similarly schedule check-points to test for enthusiasm and motivation so that encouragement and support (both moral and material) can de-risk a project in danger of fade-out.

In a future blog entry I’ll discuss the motivation factors around individual self-actualization, challenge and reward. There’s a big body of work on this topic (e.g. Redmond and Stephens in the refs) and I have some observations from a couple of decades in the trenches. These concepts are important in solidifying the experience of a well-led project into building blocks for future projects, rather than creating a sources of recurring weakness, like dry-rot in the frame of a house.