R&D is an endurance event — it’s not a sprint
Pace is important. A sense of urgency gets things done. A sense of panic burns people out
Every company should have some R&D — even the mom and pop corner shop
Without a constant stream of new ideas, you business will slowly decay
Invention takes time. There will be many missteps, delays and frustrations
Always think about different ways to solve the same problem.
Crossover products are great sources of innovation
R&D projects always conserve the trinity: Features, Schedule and Budget
Most companies think they don’t need an R&D effort. They would be wrong. All companies, no matter the size, need some sort of forward looking group (or person) to figure out the next big trend or innovation. Even the mom and pop corner shop needs someone to think about the future. Maybe it’s not reinventing the corner store but there are plenty of new trends that merit some form of R&D.
Forward Looking and Thinking
Research is a forward looking endeavor. There may not be any tangible results immediately since research can lead you down many dead ends. The trick with research is to align your research group to the strategic direction of an industry or your company. Focusing them on your high level goals will allow alignment to your overall, long term corporate goals.
Discipline Pays Off
The discipline required, both technically and organizationally, to pull off effective research can be challenging during tough times. This is largely due to the long term nature of research and it’s delayed bottom line impact. Lots of companies downsize their research efforts when times are tough. This is precisely the wrong thing to do. A downturn is the perfect time to invest in innovative since once the downturn is over, you will be ready. Prudence is clearly required to assess the overall health of the company and how a research program will effect the bottom line. More often than not, companies cut their research budgets too severely and are not ready to exploit an upturn.
Without a constant stream of products and services, a company will slowly decay into obscurity. Just look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average 100 years ago. There is only one company that is still on the list today — General Electric. Being stagnate and “resting on your laurels” is a sure path to destruction. That’s why it’s important to have an innovation pipeline that feeds your company with products. The steps are not hard but the discipline can be difficult to impossible to sustain. There are a couple of things you can do to ensure that your innovation pipeline stays full. For example:
Have A Patent Process: Making innovation part of your culture starts with having a process to generate ideas and patents. Patents are one way to see how your R&D pipeline is filling up.
Encourage Education: Learning new things as well as staying current with industry trends is vital to a proper R&D program. Educating your employees not only makes them better but it makes your company more competitive.
Cross Train Disciplines: Lots of innovation comes from crossover products or services. Having an engineer go meet a customer will provide a wealth of insight that almost always leads to some new feature or function.
Reward Failure: I know, this sounds odd but failure is an integral part of R&D. Without failure, you don’t know the boundary of your knowledge. It obvious that you can’t constantly fail but celebrating the occasional failure shows your employees that it’s OK to take a chance.
Set Aside Creative Time: Innovative ideas can happen while you work but to truly innovate, time must be set aside to think of the big ideas and tinker. Allow your employees to tinker in the lab, even if it’s a personal side project.
Have Innovation Deliverables: No R&D group can just work and produce nothing. That’s a waste of time. The whole point of R&D is to develop products that the company can sell. So, have some deliverables and goals for your R&D group. Challenge them to file patents, launch products or present papers.
In The End, It’s About Making Products
In the end, R&D is about making products to sell. If you don’t convert your R&D dollars to sales, you are not doing a good job at R&D. The amount of money you spend on R&D will depend on your company. Don’t assume just because you are an established or non-high-tech company that R&D is not important New products and services are the engine of growth for a company. Staving the engine of its needed innovation fuel will make your companies growth sputter to a stop.
Things To Ponder
Research a public company that is know for their R&D efforts. Look up how much they spend on R&D. Compare that to their competitor. Write a paragraph or two about how R&D helps/hinders each company.
Go to the United States Patent and Trademark Site. Look up your companies patents. How many do they have? Look up your competitors. How many do they have? What are the technologies that your competitors are patenting that you are not?
For your company, figure out how long it takes from innovation to product. Go ask your CTO or VP of R&D to explain the process to take an idea to a product. Write a couple of paragraphs about what you have found.
Think of some major product or innovation failure. Why did it fail? Where there any aspects of the innovation that are still being used?
Come up with a couple of cross over innovations by combining two different products or services. Don’t limit yourself to practical or even something marketable. Just combine different things to see what you can come up with.
Wikipedia R&D definition
Business Strategy and Innovation blog
United States Patent Office site
Interesting blog article on measuring your innovation pipeline