Research and development (R&D) is often perceived as being the domain of big business. Only Procter and Gamble or Pfizer can afford to hire scientists with PhDs, buy lab equipment and run millions of experiments, the majority of which will amount to nothing. It may be true that you need to have substantial spare cash to do R&D as I have described it here. But the essence of R&D is applicable to any business no matter how big or small.
R&D is defined as discovering new knowledge about products, processes, and services, and then applying that knowledge to create new and improved products, processes, and services that fill market needs. All business owners, if they want to survive and thrive, need to discover and apply new knowledge about the products, processes and services they deliver. If you don’t, your business will stagnate and die. Therefore don’t write R&D off as a project for big business. Developing an R&D programme in your business does not need to cost you a fortune. Here are seven simple ideas for doing research and development on the cheap:
1. Pet projects. Give employees the freedom and space to use a percentage of their work time for a work-related pet project. Google and 3M do this with great results. In both companies employees can use 20% of their time to work on something that they are passionate about. Gmail, Post-it Notes and Google Chat are just a few of the innovations to emerge from these pet projects.
2. Employee exchanges. Research tells us that diversity breeds creativity. If you continue to try solving all your problems with only the people in your organisation, you risk coming up with stale solutions. To inject diversity into your team and expose your employees to new ways of doing things consider exchanging a few employees with another organisation for a few days. New views, fresh insights and an altered dynamic will foster creativity and novel problem solving ideas.
3. Sandwich brainstorms. I recently came across a small software company in Seattle that decided to make valuable use of its lunch break. Twice a week the company orders in sandwiches and has a 40-minute brainstorming session during the break. All those who participate get free sandwiches and the opportunity to bring their work challenges to the session when their turn comes around.
The name ”sandwich brainstorm” refers to the free sandwiches but also to the fact that they sandwich it in between everything else that they are doing. They are strict about keeping it upbeat and energised and about finishing in 40 minutes.
4. Create a tinker-box. Ideo is a small design consultancy that was named the 10th most innovative company in America. One of the things I discovered when I visited Ideo is that it keeps tools, artefacts and implements that can be used to quickly prototype new ideas in a box that employees can easily access. Because Ideo designs physical objects it needs to be able to build prototypes of new concepts rapidly. The value of being able to translate an idea from mental to physical quickly is fundamental in the innovation process. Google provides more whiteboards than one could ever imagine to help people translate ideas quickly from their heads into a diagram or flowchart format. You need to create mechanisms that enable people to get ideas out of their heads and into a space where they can have a practical application.
5. Institutional linkages. Linking in with educational institutions is one of the cheapest and most efficient ways of tapping into under-utilised problem-solving power. In university classes across the globe, lecturers are looking for interesting projects for their students to tackle. Why not set up your R&D challenge as an assignment for an appropriate higher education class? If it is a business problem go to a business school, if it’s a process problem go to an engineering class and if it’s a branding problem ask a design school for help. What lecturer doesn’t want to bring an exciting real-life project into their classroom?
6. Mini-alliances. If you have an R&D challenge, it is likely that somewhere someone else has a similar problem. Large companies across the globe regularly enter into strategic alliances with other companies to help solve their most pressing challenges. Why can’t you do the same? Find other companies that are preferably not direct competitors but have similar challenges to you and distribute the effort of solving the problem. Working with others increases learning, reveals novel solutions and sometimes develops relationships that offer value well beyond the original project.
7. Incremental efforts. You don’t need to commit wholeheartedly to every R&D project from day one. Too many people dismiss R&D because they anticipate what a project will cost and are scared off. If you see R&D projects as incremental learning efforts and you break them down into stages they are usually easier to tackle – mentally and financially.
Say you are trying to come up with a new product design with multiple new features. Don’t try to develop all the features in a single effort. Break the project down and commit money and time to developing only the first feature, then re-evaluate. R&D is more manageable if it is viewed incrementally. These seven ideas may not be equally effective in your business – you need to decide on the direction you want to take with R&D. But remember that if your organisation is not the one creating and applying new knowledge to fill market needs, then you may wake up one day and discover that your market share is shrinking, your people are leaving and the technology in your company is lagging behind everyone else’s.