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?