The Hidden Dangers of Slow R&D
Common sense dictates: go slow. Because fast invites danger.
Guess what? Common sense is wrong.
Because what happens when you walk too slowly?
You fall flat on your face.
Same for R&D. Except it’s far worse.
Worst case, it can sound your company’s death knell.
It goes far beyond traditional “fail fast” and agile methodology.
Go too slowly and you slam into multiple insidious problems at once. You crash through from one floor to the next.
But look — your task as a leader is not to prevent a fall in the first place. Such a mindset leads to unnecessary risk-aversion.
Instead, see if you can spot the following problems in your company:
Your processes, designs and procurement get locked in too early.
The worst part: if your R&D is artificially slow, you probably don’t even realize it. Because it’s moving at the pace it always has.
No matter, right? Slow or not, with a ton of effort from a crack team of people, you can still get an R&D intensive project off the ground.
However — try changing an underlying technology while the thing already hovers in the air. Good luck.
Imagine you’re in charge of billions of dollars of hard-won investment capital. A large team of top scientists and engineers look to you to make it all go. The weight of the entire endeavor rests on your tired shoulders alone.
You work like crazy…and then discover how a key decision you made in the beginning led to a totally outdated technology.
A blunder large enough to take down the entire endeavor. Because what do you get if you rip out a core technology in a large R&D project? Sparks will fly across your whole company — and zap every system and person involved.
Better prevent this. Commit to a periodic and frank examination of your processes and early design decisions. Face the hard facts — because whether you like it or not, if they truly are facts, they will assert themselves no matter what you do. Often at the worst possible moment.
And do such examination with a diverse bunch of people — not just the engineers involved in the project.
Why? Because if you involve scientists and engineers only, you will fall straight through to the next floor:
Academic culture infects the work.
Can’t help it.
R&D necessarily involves a core group of people with science or engineering backgrounds. People with hard technical skills, honed through years of logical problem-solving.
But what comes with such skills? Academic culture. An approach based on rigor, detail and intellectual stimulation. A culture where high rewards go to whoever gets it right on the first try.
The problem? A good entrepreneur takes an almost completely opposite approach to R&D.
For instance, when George Eiskamp, cofounder and CEO of GroundMetrics set out with his team to build a new type of sensor, they first took the standard approach and made a list of all the possible things that could go wrong.
Inevitably, it got too long. To develop prototypes which can mitigate all that risk would take over a year.
They needed a new approach. So their CTO, Andrew Hibbs, decided not to worry about the list of potential problems. Instead, he set a new goal: identify a simple design they could build within weeks. All so they could get just enough data in the frequency band of interest.
For instance, when they needed a type of electromagnetic shielding, they tested it with aluminum foil first. Not a reliable shield, but enough to gather data for this type of problem. Instead of testing in a laboratory environment, they went to parks, trails, parking lots and canyons to deploy their prototype sensor.
The point: gather data for the type of problem your end product needs to solve — your target frequency band.
Never shoot for perfection. It’s a legacy of academic culture — which bakes slowness into your R&D department due to its love of intellectual rigor.
Worst part? It over-values conceptual depth.
Thus, academic culture tells you: always hire the deepest specialists.
The constant need for specialists snowballs the size of your team.
Henry Ford wrote in his autobiography My Life and Work:
”If ever I wanted to kill opposition by unfair means, I would endow the opposition with experts.”
“They would have so much good advice that I could be sure they would do little work.”
The point? Your culture, processes and design decisions get bogged down in the need for more and more constrained expert guidance.
What to do instead? Bring in cross-functional people. You get more bang for your buck.
More importantly, it keeps your team small. Even better, your critical tasks as a leader — communication, empathy, vision — stay efficient. With far less effort, you can keep your people’s sense of mission sharp.
Your challenge: to maintain constant awareness of your R&D gene pool. More than almost anything else, your R&D depends on your team’s composition.
Look — do you care about the change your technology could bring about?
Then keep your eyes wide. See if you can spot slow R&D as it winds its way into your company.
And kill it before it spreads.
Because otherwise…wait, did you hear that?
It sounded like a bell. Yes — your company’s death knell.
Trust me: you don’t want to hear it. Commit to fast R&D so you never will.
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