It’s Time for Your R & D Team to Stop Inventing and Start Innovating

Your company's R & D needs to innovate, not just invent.

In a recent post on his 15 Inno blog, Open Innovation guru Stefan Lindegaard presented the ostensibly nonsensical hypothesis:  R & D leaders are often a “threat” to innovation.  Stefan’s post resulted from an interaction he had with a senior R & D person at a mid-sized tech company, who apparently adhered to the outdated notion that he and his scientists and engineers know more about the company’s business than anyone else could possibly even try to know.  As a result, this R & D leader believes that they cannot maximize (or even create) value for their organization by looking outside the confines of their existing R & D infrastructure to solve the company’s pressing business problems.

Reading this, R & D professionals might likely think:  “What’s this guy smoking?  How can R & D be a threat to innovation?!  We’re the reason this company has any innovation at all.  We’re scientists!  Inventors!  Innovators!”  But, unless their companies are consistently experiencing year over year growth coming solely from sales of innovative new products and technology or cost reductions resulting from process innovations, such protestations prove Stefan’s point:  many R & D leaders kill their organization’s ability to innovate due to their self-absorbed mindset.  And, when, as often is the case, R & D leaders are the gatekeepers of innovation pathways at their organizations, we should assume that the likelihood is slim to none that a company will come up with a game changing product or technology.  Indeed, if this R & D leader and his team were as innovative as they think they are, the company would not be on an as-yet unrequited quest for that elusive game changing innovation.

There are a number of reasons for the misalignment of innovation self-assessment and reality when it comes to R & D.  But, I think the overarching reason centers on a fundamental disconnect between the meaning of invention and innovation in today’s business world.  Unquestionably, scientists and engineers are inventive.  They quite often come up with wholly new ideas.  Historically, the novelty and unobviousness of such ideas have been validated by the U.S. (or other ) governments in the form of patents.  But, at the end of the day, the government stamp of approval in the form of a patent means only that the subject invention met the legal requirements for patentability, not that the invention has any relevance whatsoever about what a customer wishes to purchase in volumes that drive the type of profits needed to demonstrate business success.

In other words, there is little correlation between innovation and inventiveness.

This hard fact means that it is virtually impossible for a company to have business success from innovation without first wholly revamping its R & D infrastructure to re-train and re-incentivize the organization’s scientists and engineers.  How I think this could be accomplished is beyond the scope of this posting, but suffice it to say that, in my years of experience, I have seen no instance where leadership in any company aligned R & D salaries, bonuses and promotions with how much money is being made from products and technology developed by the organization’s scientists and engineers.

Lest the reader think I am stepping into a world in which I have no actual knowledge of the inner workings, I should note that I started my life as a graduate-level chemist in a large consumer products corporation and am a named inventor on a patent for a hair care product that no women in her right mind would ever use.  Moreover, in my 12 + years in active practice as a patent attorney, I obtained patents on literally 100’s of inventions, the vast majority of which were worth absolutely nothing to my clients at the end of the process.

Yes, I and my clients were “inventive” as demonstrated by the multitude of patents memorializing our ingenuity for all to see, but we weren’t innovative in the least.   That is, our inventions were not profitable and we had no business spending our organization’s money on worthless ingenuity.  Instead, we should have been working with our company’s business people to understand what the consumer wanted to buy and to use our scientific ingenuity to give the customer what she wants.  This scientific ingenuity may result from developing something from scratch within our own organization.  Alternatively, we could have used our scientific prowess to determine when the ingenuity of others solves our consumer’s pressing needs and adapting such externally developments to make it fit within our organization’s systems and processes, something that often requires significant technological skill to achieve.

The inevitable push-back from R & D purists will be along the lines of “business corrupts the scientific method, so we need to be left alone to create solutions to our company’s problems.”   But this begs the question that the scientific method still should hold methodological primacy when the underlying issue is how to get a product to market that the consumer buys in huge quantities, especially when there is no question that science does not move very fast when left to its own devices.  In actuality, the scientific method within which we scientists and engineers have been trained for 100’s of years does not guarantee or even make it likely that game changing innovations will occur within the time frame needed to allow a corporation to meet its requirements to generate sustainable revenue.  (If you have 10 minutes, you should watch this video from my husband, Emory University Professor Matt Payne–with sloppy camera work by me–that distills Thomas Kuhn’s very dense The Structure of Scientific Revolutions into a fun lecture.)

Unlike days past, where R & D leader’s jobs were to deliver product to the business to sell, today’s R & D must deliver product that will sell.  No longer will it suffice for R & D leaders to take the “build it and the the customer will come” approach.  Product timelines are too short, investors too impatient and the technological needs of the world too urgent.  In the end, self-absorbed and siloed R & D folks remind one of nothing so much as the smartest guys in the room until the room got a whole lot bigger.  And, the world is a whole lot bigger today.

Fortunately, for R &D scientists and engineers, humanity has discovered an extraordinarily efficient way to discover consumer preferences–it’s called “the market.”  By partnering with the guys who know that side of the equation i.e., business people, as opposed to building walls to keep them at bay, everyone stands a better chance of winning.  So, people who pay R & D leaders like the guy Stefan talked to really need to assess whether folks like him are the right folks, in the right roles, with the right responsibilities to do what the company needs to succeed.

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