“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”
― Winston Churchill
“Ability is what you're capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.”
― Lou Holtz
Making new stuff is exciting. We talk about inspiration, creative sparks, and brainstorms; we celebrate debuts and unveilings. But while launch celebrations are common, nobody ever throws a research party. It’s easy to neglect the R part of R&D amidst all the attention to the D.
Sometimes the word research itself carries negative connotations—deservedly or not. At best, it’s dry and academic; at worst, it’s a necessary evil. But if your job involves overseeing research and development, you need to pay the right kind of attention to the R half the function because how you think about research can determine whether your organization can create the new stuff customers crave.
Read on to find out if your approach to research cultivates—or stifles—innovation.
Your engineers probably spend plenty of time doing lab-based research. Yet limiting research to technology and science means your R&D team is doing only part of its job. Open-ended inquiry into the problems of the marketplace is equally important.
Certainly, part of an R&D department’s job is to respond to product-related issues and improve existing offerings. I would argue that engineers and developers also need to venture in to unchartered territory: understanding the challenges of customers and potential customers for which there’s not yet even a glimmer of a solution.
You may think open-ended customer inquiry is the purview of the marketing department. But responsibility for this shouldn’t belong to marketing alone. Francis Gouillart writes in a blog post titled Seven Words We Should Ban From the Product Development Language that “Engineers should not delegate the formulation of problems to market research people.” I agree.
Which brings us to the next question: When should R&D staff get involved?
If the marketing department conducts research, identifies customer challenges, and only then assembles a cross-functional team (you do have a cross-functional product development team, right?), you’re missing out on benefits that could make the difference between winning and losing in the marketplace.
Product developers’ jobs become harder when they’re left out of the product definition process. They miss potentially valuable insights. They’re working without the context for what they’re creating and are forced to rely on their own interpretation of what’s important when making design tradeoffs later in development.
Hearing directly from customers about problems ignites a passion in product developers that can’t be stirred in other ways. You can’t substitute a pass-off of research for this direct customer interaction, with its attendant opportunities to see, hear, and experience the customer’s pain and follow up with probing questions. When engineers don’t have direct customer interaction, it’s all too easy for them to shrug off marketing insights as irrelevant.
Part two of the when involves taking the long view of research. You keep the innovation pipeline full by extending research beyond the next 6-, 12-, or even 18-month product release cycle. When you confine research to a particular release, you lose great ideas that don’t fit in the current cycle but that might, with a bit more exploration, form the basis of your next product. You need a method to surface and retain those ideas so you can invest the resources necessary to take them beyond the fuzzy stage.
Right people, right things, right time
Maybe you’ve heard all this before. Maybe you even think it’s a good idea. Now you need to take the next step: re-examining your philosophy about the role and timing of research. Are you committed to having the right people (developers) doing the right things (open-ended customer research) at the right time (early)?
Your answer may determine whether your company has what it takes to nurture innovation—and eventually throw a great launch party.