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.