Many businesses have research and development teams embedded as dedicated functions or units within their organization. R&D teams can mean many things to many people, depending upon your industry and what problems you are trying to solve. Here at Hubble, our R&D team evaluates our products and emerging technologies in order to find those changes that make our customers ecstatic to use our solutions.
This is just one of the many ways we push ourselves to the next level at Hubble. However, R&D isn’t all fun and games. There are challenges. These challenges can undeniably hinder innovation if not understood and addressed. And most of us in this realm encounter these same challenges. I've encountered them time and time again.
Along the way, I've developed some of my own philosophies about how to achieve innovation against all odds: trumpeting the R&D team as the innovative path-finders for your organization. This post is an inside guide, from my own experience, about creating this change in culture and overcoming the two major obstacles facing R&D teams.
You have to reconsider your ideas about outcomes
The first and biggest boundary to innovation actually exists at the final step of the overall process: the outcome.
The most highly successful companies approach problems and investments strategically, of course. They want their resources to be focused on activities that address customers’ needs, promise higher profits, are technologically feasible and help them play in substantial markets. We all understand that.
Yet, there has to be a disconnect between that strategic focus on outcomes for the overall company and the R&D team. The processes that accomplish wins for the rest of the company can stifle R&D activities, like nurturing disruptive technologies or thinking of new ideas that may take a while to become successful—and then possibly, hugely so. Resetting expectations involves fighting some fundamental tendencies about the way successful organizations work and, then, about how performance is evaluated.
Rethink your ideas of success for an R&D team
The second major obstacle that many R&D teams face isn't confined to working in highly complex unknown spaces with less defined outcomes, it's that they are being measured like the rest of the company by operational KPIs that are only meant to deliver short-term value.
If you tie KPIs into traditional performance management challenges, much of an organization's success is recognized by these short-term benefits. If you then use those same KPIs to define success for your R&D team, this performance trap can effectively alienate the R&D team from the rest of the organization, as they are not perceived to deliver the same value as everyone else who is delivering products or generating sales. And that, as I've seen before, can cause the R&D team to struggle to connect to the rest of the company, as well as problems the organization suffers from most. And these organizational problems are specifically places where the R&D team can have its greatest value.
When you're setting up your R&D team to be the innovative path-finders for your organization, then, it's important to make different expectations about outcomes and measuring success clear. For the R&D team, and the rest of the organization. Your R&D team cannot and should not be measured using operational business performance KPIs.
The task of research itself is to explore and better understand a complex or unknown issue that matters to your company's strategic challenges ahead. By better understanding these challenges, you can gain knowledge to make better decisions and know what options and opportunities are available. And, when innovation is fostered as an organization, R&D discoveries can lead to finding emerging markets or niches and opportunities to innovate and grow as a company.
Setting up for failure, not success
Through R&D's work, you'll also have more knowledge to inform you that potential options may not be worth exploring. Remember, failure is the chief realm of R&D. As Edison once said:
"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
Some studies show that with R&D exploration, the failure rate can be as high as 90%. If your R&D team isn't failing, it may actually be a sign that they're not learning or taking the risks that they need to. For another team in the company, this type of success would be a huge warning flag. For R&D, it's expected. R&D teams are exploring the unknown, complex spaces.
If your R&D team cannot demonstrate a reasonable rate of failure, it should raise the concern about whether the team is taking enough risk.
How we handle R&D at Hubble
Our R&D team at Hubble is small, but very effective. That small team has produced some of the key competitive advantages we see in our products today that have made us stand out above the rest of our competitors.
We don't manage or measure our R&D teams in the same way we manage our product engineering or sales teams. We give our R&D teams the freedom to explore with some strategic guidance tailored to their department to help steer them. This way when they deliver learnings and knowledge, it connects to real business problems or sets the path for opportunities ahead.
One of the ways we are making our R&D teams the innovative path finders in our organization right now is to make the R&D backlog and priorities more accessible and transparent to the rest of the organization. In this way, others can see how we have redefined outcomes and success to foster innovation. A key question we ask our R&D teams every couple weeks is, “What have you learnt?”
At a very high level, this diagram shows how this all fits together:
We know that R&D's job is to fail in some sense, in order to find new and risky but also industry-changing options, that others have been too safe to try. Set your teams up to do the same.
If you have comments about this or want to discuss further, please drop me a line. I do reply.
Craig Strong is the VP of Product Development at Hubble. Originating from the land of dragons and rugby, Craig more than lives up to his last name when it comes to product innovation, development, and management practices. With years of experience and a solid track record for tech innovation, Craig is most excited to deliver product updates that advance the Hubble solution and enhance customer experience. When Craig isn’t mentoring start-up communities or innovating in enterprises with award winning products, you can find him out and about London town with his two pups, Buster and Rio.