R&D Strategy

R&D Strategy is a voyage of discovery into the nature of effectiveness.

There is no simple answer or catchy slogan. The moment you put up a poster on the bulletin board in the cafeteria is the moment you admit defeat. Effectiveness comes from the behaviors of people in R&D and behaviors are ugly. R&D is a creative endeavor and you can’t mandate or predict the occurrence of the next creative moment: R&D is a metrics-free zone. There is no interim measure to be quantified, summarized or consolidated. You’ll sense you’re moving toward greater effectiveness, you can point to signals+, but you can’t write down the "why" in a concise few paragraphs for the next annual report.

Strategy is the expression of intent used to direct all actions toward a desired set of results. paraphrased from Paula Manoski (2002). The R&D Strategy / Strategic Process

How do you, as Head of R&D, intend to increase the effectiveness of your organization? What sensations, aura or karma do you feel when you walk into your research facilities? Is it a sense you get when you walk into a well-run factory, each cog in the machine well-oiled and each worker busily doing the one or few activities they do best? Or, as a creative organization are you expecting disorder, chaos and workers running in two or more directions at once? Or worse, are workers are lounging around looking like they’re not working? You, as Head of R&D, need to come up with what you intend for your organization and how this contributes to business results.

For creative organizations there is no one-size-fits-all+. The nature of effectiveness depends on the team. Some relish informality. Some relish structure and a sense of order. And the needs of the team change with the maturity of the work. A free-wheeling, anything goes+ approach at the beginning of the project may (or may not) morph into a more regimented approach as the project matures, or, as the team composition changes. Your intention must be broad enough to encompass these changes.

For creative endeavors we face the challenge that if the intent is expressed too narrowly we’ll quash the very creativity we wish to promote. State it too broadly and people will drive a tractor-trailer through it. Anyone can couch that next great idea in terms that satisfy your intention.

Strategist: I believe we drive greater innovation by working better as a team.

Vendor: Then you need open sourcing.

Strategist: I believe we drive greater innovation by leveraging our top few performers.

Vendor: Then you need open sourcing.

To strike this balance between too broad and too narrow, we document a set of foundational beliefs about how research happens in an industrial setting. For example, we may believe the purpose of industrial R&D is to take someone else’s innovation and commercialize it. This has implications for how we go about doing the work (e.g., how we capture the implicit knowledge+ of the innovator during the hand-off of his or her innovation). We use these implications to set boundaries on our broad R&D strategy: on our intentions for R&D. Exhibit 1 illustrates a few of the foundational beliefs for a World Class R&D organization.

Exhibit 1: Illustrative Foundational Beliefs an their Implications
Foundational Beliefs (Illustrative) Implications for R&D Strategy
Blockbusters are discovered discontinuously (i.e., we are a blockbuster product company)
  • We need to secure the means for continuous funding of discontinuous discovery+
We don’t always know where the research is going to lead us when we start
  • We need a measure of interim progress that distinguishes tacking & turning from lack of direction
  • We set it up so the team being measured is their own worst critic: internal motivations are far more compelling than anything imposed from the outside
We don’t arbitrarily shut down avenues of research (i.e., it is just as hard to falsify a research program as to validate it)
  • We need the means to make researchers come to us when the research program no longer has blockbuster potential
Commercialization+ work makes better researchers
  • We need the means to tie the obligation of commercialization work with the ability to do ‘fun’ research

You can’t have enough of these beliefs and implications. Don’t worry about getting them wrong the first time. Don’t worry about later placing more boundaries around your beliefs based on results.

These beliefs must be yours despite the level of maturity in your thinking. You want to be able to sense viscerally when any disconnect happens in the actions flowing from your beliefs. Do worry about not having thought deeply enough about your beliefs. Do worry about your own susceptibility to retrospective distortion+, confirmation error+, inconsistencies and a host of other common biases. Do get yourself a dissenter+ and nurture this individual as your most precious asset. Did I mention these beliefs are yours and not those of a committee?

Beliefs drive implications for R&D strategy but not the strategy itself. R&D strategy provides the list of specific and actionable activities. Implications provide the conceptual design, strategy provides the action verbs. What specifically do we do to drive effectiveness in a way consistent with your beliefs? R&D strategy builds management competencies+ and not technical competencies in the organization (i.e., selection of new science platforms in which to invest is a management competency).

R&D Strategy is a personal voyage of discovery into the nature of effectiveness and this means you should be constantly willing to deepen and test the your beliefs against the realities seen in the R&D organization. It takes curiosity, tenacity, openness to opposing views, conviction, etc. In short it takes the traits and maturity one seeks in any good researcher.

There may be a qualitative difference between strategy for R&D and strategy for other functional areas (e.g., manufacturing) in that you may not be able to do corporate strategy in isolation from R&D strategy. Corporate strategy does not drive R&D strategy any more than R&D strategy should drive corporate strategy. For example you can't do a product-market matrix for your corporate strategy and impose your findings on R&D. It won't work. R&D for innovative products means discontinuous discovery: you don't know when or where that next blockbuster will arise. The product and the market in your matrix become indeterminate. The only 'predictable' products coming out of R&D are sub-blockbusters; corporate strategy must take this into account. Plan for the sub-blockbuster at the corporate level and put in place contingencies for the unpredictable blockbuster. For companies dedicated to innovative products, R&D and corporate strategy are built together, with neither overwhelming the other.


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