The R&D Narrative

Myth: The facts will set us free.

Reality: Narratives, not facts, guide our thinking.

WCRDAdmin (2010).

C-level officers don’t have a prayer of understanding the research.1 For example, in the biological sciences, Janeway provides (essentially) a narrative for the researchers, to help them organize their many disparate and partial bits of evidence into a common framework. Janeway is just barely comprehensible to funding agents, and others not schooled in the biological sciences. The glossary alone is 20+ pages of dense text. It’s like learning a foreign language. The narratives of biological researchers are often buried one or two layers even deeper than Janeway, in the specialty journals. If you’re not in the laboratory working on the specific sub-specialty of the science, you’re essentially excluded from the research narrative. You are left to search for other narratives.

C-level officials will be tempted to view R&D using narratives similiar to those they see in sales, manufacturing or many other corporate functions. The commonalities across these functions, of course, are efficiencies. They are, for the most part, transaction-oriented activities. There is a great temptation to look at R&D like a factory, and to attribute the messiness and lack of measurable progress in R&D to inefficiencies, rather than to the creative process. Or worse, they allow researchers to thrash about without effective management, until it’s too late to salvage the relationship between R&D and c-level officials.

The factory mentality for R&D can often be stated as a compelling narrative. Consider the following example from the pharmaceutical industry:

You must build a methodology for deciding go / no-go at each stage in the research process. What are the most important questions to resolve for unambiguous decision making at each stage in the progression of the R&D candidate? Only then can we decide whether or not a candidate should be allowed to continue to the next stage. Illustrative Management Consulting Website Text (~2009)

Readers adept in the thinking of World Class R&D will recognize this claim as pure hogwash. Yet it resonates with those who think with a factory mindset: of course we should check the quality of our work as it moves down the production line! In World Class R&D we must develop a narrative that is just as compelling, and one that debunks the factory mentality. Equally it debunks the common claim to academic freedom of research. This is industrial R&D, and as such it seeks creativity directed toward commercial goals.

We need to develop a narrative that conveys the following images:

  • The discontinuous nature of blockbuster+ discovery
  • Our delivery of interim commercial results (i.e., sub blockbusters)
  • Integrity in the measurement of our interim results

We don’t know when that next blockbuster will hit, but in the meantime we assuage the naturally anxious funding agents by spinning off sub blockbuster products. And we provide impartial evidence to the funding agent that we are making progress toward blockbuster goals.

The closest analogy we have to work with, but one having a negative connotation, is the perfect storm. Three or four events must come together, that individually are very unlikely, in order to achieve the perfect storm (i.e., our blockbuster). We show annually that the individual events are happening (i.e., our sub blockbusters). And we show through independent measurement that should they occur simultaneously, then we’ll have a perfect storm. But the timing and actual location of the perfect storm are unknown. We just know it will happen, and within a likely time-frame.

The analogy is weak in that many readers will equate it with the idea of serendipity. This is far from the intent. Serendipity implies an element of luck. We instead believe that the blockbuster pursuit is purposeful, but extremely complex. That some of the elements contributing to the storm do come together in a fortuitous manner does not say that we are waiting for luck to happen. Instead we make our own luck, by being there when the moment does happen.

Readers are invited to come up with a narrative for World Class R&D to convey the images listed above. Perhaps we use college graduates at prestigious universities? We know we will eventually graduate a superstar from the Juilliard School of music, in that each year we graduate many fine performers. We have talent scouts tracking our progress and letting us know how we’re doing. What is the narrative for World Class R&D? You must construct the compelling narrative, or risk having funding agents construct their own, to the detriment of R&D.

  • 1. For a humorous citation, see here.