Project milestones, as practiced in today's industries, are destructive of creativity. We abandon this practice and replace it with an independent evaluation+ of team effectiveness.

[In their 1985 quest to attract funding for new biotech research] a handful of venture capitalists … hit upon the idea that scientific accomplishment could be a marker. [They secured] milestone payments from large pharmaceutical partners in exchange for showing progress toward agreed [research] goals, thus obtaining funding. Researchers [in the ventures] began publishing in top journals, proving that the academic coin of the realm … could be deployed to attract new sources of funding. Powell, Walter W. & Sandholtz, Kurt (2011). Chance, Nécessité, et Naïveté: Ingredients to create a new organizational form

We don’t prejudge where the next blockbuster+ product or service will appear when working in unpredictable R&D+. Today’s ugly baby+ may be tomorrow’s greatest win.

Today’s managers track project milestones in R&D. They have a ‘portfolio of R&D projects’ each with projected completion dates, risk factors and estimated commercial values. Managers map all projects along a visual timeline and ‘manage’ projects using this chart. Movement along the project chart gives the illusion of leadership and makes for great theater in endless meetings convened by managers to show off these (meticulously prepared) charts.

Project milestones have no welcome in our funding agency+. We don’t select an arbitrary commercial path or promising R&D candidates and drive forward using these as our anchor. Creative R&D means tacking and turning. We don’t shut down future options until very late in the commercialization+ game. Commercial direction, the way we address commercial needs, the very nature of how we conduct our research, are all fluid and subject to continuous change. The visualization instead is a large, dense cloud out of which products appear unexpectedly heading in any direction: not good for theatrical effect.

But that’s anarchy! Researchers left to their own devices will thrash around for years in the pursuit of research for the sake of research. They need timelines. They need (and request) direction. They need management. We’ll set aside 15% of the budget for creative moments. The other 85% of the time we need them to drive to completion the projects we put on the schedule.

We build leaders not project managers. We lead teams in their search for creative commercial applications of science platforms. We do not manage rote activities. Leadership understands we’re selling a subjective consumer experience, and the consumer can often be multi-faceted (e.g., payors, influencers, consumers, regulators, providers). You can imagine people’s reaction when Steven Jobs mandated Apple Computer move into the business of selling music over the internet. This is improvisational R&D, one that explores all aspects of the consumer experience. Our projects are without linear progression: they move forward and backward and even side-to-side.

Project milestones rear their ugly head under a variety of guises: label-driven design, proof-of-concept, FDA approvals, and Early Kills+. We not only ban them from creative R&D, we prohibit the collection of data needed to feed these practices. Quants are not allowed to gain a toehold. The first time ‘managers’ from the funding agency get a view of research candidates, the first time products emerge from the cloud, is when the Investible Unit+ requests graduation+ of a research candidate into (the very expensive) commercialization investment category+. Up to that point all is hidden and unexpected.1

We practice alternate competing hypotheses+ (ACH). We run our research efforts like a giant ACH machine. We have many alternate paths forward. We prioritize evidence gathering so that it helps us arbitrate across the many possible future paths. Each study, each dollar spent is directed toward uncovering the alternate path most likely to succeed. Such is the nature of effectiveness. Such is the nature of leadership in creative R&D.

We do have advancements+ in unpredictable R&D. We practice a sort of entrepreneurial milestone. We track team understanding and practice of the nature of effectiveness in research (knowing and doing). It’s a team measure. Has this team really come to grips with what it takes 1) to achieve blockbuster success and 2) to pay the bills during the interim with sub-blockbuster+ successes? We have no charts or visualizations. Advancements emerge based on subjective comparisons across teams. Team progress is found in a qualitative narrative delivered by their advocate (the independent evaluator+) before a panel of similarly charged advocates. Advancements fully reflect the nature of unpredictable R&D: no arbitrary commercial directions, fixed timelines or fixed research candidates.

We prohibit project milestones, replacing them with independent evaluations of team effectiveness. Teams advance, and get rewarded, even though the funding agency has no visibility into projects on which they might be working.

Editor's Picks for September, 2011

  • 1. We still need creativity within commercialization and prohibit project management is banned as well from that activity.
Further Reading
Reba Tull
Joined: 03/30/2011
You'll be back

When funding gets tight you’ll give up on subjective measures of effectiveness, pull back the covers on individual investments, and mandate specific milestones. Your excuse? "This is an exception that must happen, or we risk losing it all."