Build or burn?

Managing R&D – part one (scientists)

Business people don’t understand scientists and scientists are ill-equipped for the business environment.  It’s a minor miracle anything emerges from research and development departments.  Given the importance of innovation and technology to a company’s prosperity, corporate efforts to manage R&D are surprisingly clunky.  Any company (or economy for that matter) that cracks it deserves all the success that comes their way.  Having worked inside R&D for nearly two decades, but always as an outsider, here’s my perspective.

Business careers start from a specialist background.  As they become older, more experienced and more senior, business people gradually move away from their specialism and learn skills that are not function-specific, like leadership, project management, people-management, strategy, and decision-making.  They broadened out.

In science, you start from a specialist background and become more specialist in a narrower and narrower field until, when at the top of your profession, there may be just a handful of people in the world working in your area, and you know them all.  As your career develops you miss out on all the experience that most business people are acquiring in their twenties and thirties.  Eventually you arrive at a management position in an organisation quite unprepared in the skills needed for the job.   Training courses cannot make up for the battle scars other executives acquire during this period.

In short, it is the collision of different worlds, aggravated by the following difficulties of communication:

1)  Scientists get excited by exploring new ideas.  Business people value the more prosaic task of completing the current project before moving too soon on to the next one.

2)  Scientists tend towards the introverted scale of personality types.  Most business people, who tend towards the extroverted scale, find it difficult to appreciate such people.

3)  Scientists tend towards the Left, politically.  Most business people tend towards the Right.  Thus some scientists might cheerfully explain to a business type that they don’t really care about making money, without understanding how alien that sounds to commercial ears.

4)  Scientists are brutally direct in assessing each other’s work.  Used to speaking to each other this way, they often don’t realise how inappropriately abrupt, and even rude, it sounds out of context of a science discussion.

5)  Scientists will invest time writing long-emails explaining you are wrong, and will want the last word.  To most business people there’s a certain length of e-mail beyond which is not read, and a certain length of email ping-pong before they lift the phone and have it out in person with their protagonist.  Not a scientist.  They tend to avoid direct conflict and are happier inflicting wounds with the pen.

6)  Most business people will normally be happy making a decision when they’ve got 60-80% of all the information they could possible need.  A scientist can’t afford that luxury.  If they publish after analysing 95% of a problem, you can be sure there will be someone on the other side of the planet who has specialised in the 5% of the problem you ignored and who can, as a result, prove your entire hypothesis is wrong.  If you are not a scientist, you can’t know how humiliating that would be.  As a consequence, scientists tend not to be happy with any decision until they’ve analysed it to death (as the business type would think of such behaviour).

7)  Although their day-job is to be radical in their field of science, scientists are surprisingly conservative (with a small ‘c’) outside their field.  They basically don’t like the uncertainty involved with change, and find it more unsettling than most people.

8)  Scientists hate ambiguity and wishy-washiness.  They prefer to wear a hair-shirt when spending money on anything except the latest scientific equipment.  Thus if there’s is one thing guaranteed to upset a scientist it is spending money on, for example, a new logo.  The concept of brand equity would be completely alien to their ears.  Business people love discussing this sort of thing, most of them anyway.

9)  This next thing sounds horribly judgemental, but scientists look different.  They typically dress more casually than a business person, making them look, to commercial eyes, as slightly ‘other’.

10)  Scientists work with data and evidence, business people will be happier relying on gut instinct and intuition.  There are no control groups in business decisions.

The problem these differences create is that, out of frustration, many business people despair of serious R&D, concentrating instead only on incremental development projects, ignoring more ambitious research projects.

The good news is that, although both groups are different, when their interests do align (which they can, often) the results can be super-charged, making everyone happy.  Processes for achieving this desirable outcome are the subject of part two (innovation strategies).

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