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Research and Development: The Struggle is Real!

Posted on January 19th, 2016 by in Chemical R&D

I have spent most of my career serving in research and development teams. A couple of years ago I was asked during a meeting, “How long will this development project take?” The customer was asking what the timeline looked like for a project, but after talking more about his question, it was clear what he really wanted to know was the cost of the research. That conversation was difficult and the negotiation stalled until research and development were separated and defined.

This example illustrates one of the trends I’ve observed – people struggle to separate research and development. In many organizations the two terms are combined into R&D, implying that they are one function. This is natural, as research hopefully leads into development. Combining them is confusing to many people as the sequence of the two is often lost. Combining them also makes it difficult to determine what type of project your team needs to execute, and makes it hard to explain to the team what your really trying to accomplish.

Who cares?

Research and development are different; why spend time discussing it? Confusion about the purpose of research and development can lead to communication issues, and can cause issues with your project. When a project fails it most often is connected to an obstacle with the project’s scope, and the scope problem usually comes from a communication issue.  Confused people waste time, waste resources and make mistakes.  With research and development being two different competencies, with two very different outcomes, what happens if I ask you to research an idea vs. develop it?

Research and development are each a separate function with their own unique inputs, processes and outputs. Once this is understood, it helps to define the problem your team is trying to solve, it helps to establish the plan and resources that are needed, and to set reasonable expectations. You will then be better able to answer how long the development project will take by saying, “The research portion is estimated to take two years, and we can talk about what it takes to support a team for that time.”

Procter & Gamble understands the difference very well. In fact, they moved to a new model called Connect and Develop several years ago[1]. Instead of funding only internal research programs, P&G reached out to the world for ideas and then used their competencies to develop the idea into a marketable product. Instead of pouring money into scientist and labs, they put resources into connecting to small and medium firms focused on innovation. It’s a really interesting concept, focused on finding good ideas to develop instead of researching ideas. P&G clearly communicated that they were in the market for new and good ideas, and it worked in part because they understand that R&D are two separate parts!

What is R&D?

Research is a process of creating knowledge. In practice I have found it often follows the question, “Can this exist?” Traditionally it is the focus of scientists, with support from engineers and others. I have witnessed all kinds of professionals and amateurs engage in research, seeking to answer if an idea can exist.

Industrial research focuses on commercial purposes. The goal is to prove out an idea, and then prepare it for development. Industrial research follows a structured process, unique to each organization. Inputs tend to be brainstorming sessions, market research, individual experience and intuition. The processes of industrial research often include experiments, data analysis, prototyping and testing. The outputs are usually patents, trade secrets, presentations and papers.

It can take months of work from a research team to produce one presentation slide. To a casual observer this can appear inefficient as months of work from a team in other functions can produce mountains of information. However, the research team is creating knowledge, other functions are gathering and processing existing information.

Development is a different process than research. Development focuses on growth and often answers the question, “How do I move this forward?” The input into the development process can be formulators from the research team, requests from sales and simply a problem that needs a solution. The process of development can take on many forms. Building supply chains, projects to improve efficiency, prototype testing, process design and manufacturing capability are a few. The result is moving from one state to another state, from A to B.

Closing thoughts

Researching new ideas and developing new products are energizing and rewarding processes. They are also difficult, frustrating and full of emotional highs and lows. So when you start down the R&D path, take time to ask if it’s a research project or a development project. What is the question your team is really trying to answer?


[1] https://hbr.org/2006/03/connect-and-develop-inside-procter-gambles-new-model-for-innovation

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