Why effective R&D management is challenging

A recent article in Tech-On (Mitsubishi Unveils Ultra-high-speed Elevator for Skyscraper) highlights the challenges involved in managing R&D. First one being the number of technologies that need to come together:

To realize the world’s fastest speed of 1,080m per minute, Mitsubishi Electric used new technologies for higher safety, lifting height and comfort as well as for the motor for the winch.

Specifically, the 40+ mph elevator needed new ceramic brakes, new low weight elevator rope, a roller guide with anti-phase vibration, and a new aerodynamics shape to reduce drag.  R&D managers have to ensure all required subsystems mature simultaneously for the final product to be delivered. This is an R&D management challenge because most subsystems take years to develop and most organizations have many different products in the R&D pipeline at various stages of maturity. Maintaining visibility across such disparate projects is quite difficult.  However, guiding development (through resource investment) so that the technologies mature when needed requires a rare combination of technical and financial knowledge.  (See Prof. Teece’s research for some interesting perspectives)

A second major challenge is the number of engineering disciplines that need to be working together to realize the final product.  The ceramic brakes alone needed material scientists, thermal engineers, structural engineers and manufacturing engineers.  The aerodynamic shape required computational fluid dynamics in addition to overall design among other disciplines.  Coordinating all of these skillsets and disciplines, extremely challenging in itself, becomes even more difficult when we consider multiple companies and organizations involved in development.

Another key challenge results from integration required to build a product from subsystems.  Most physical systems have complex interactions and interdependencies.  For example, the new rollers not only impact the rails/guides, but also brakes, ropes, control systems etc. Hence any changes to the brake design will cascade into changes in all other subsystems.  R&D managers need to effectively coordinate and synchronize progress across these development projects.

How leaders kill meaning at work

I have been meaning to summarize the article How leaders kill meaning at work from McKinsey Quarterly:

“In our book and a recent Harvard Business Review article,3 we argue that managers at all levels routinely—and unwittingly—undermine the meaningfulness of work for their direct subordinates through everyday words and actions. These include dismissing the importance of subordinates’ work or ideas, destroying a sense of ownership by switching people off project teams before work is finalized, shifting goals so frequently that people despair that their work will ever see the light of day, and neglecting to keep subordinates up to date on changing priorities for customers.” 

But specifically, the article points out the following traps:

1. Mediocrity Signals: Executives encourage mediocre behavior through their actions, while describing greatness in missions statements.  For example, some executives talk at length about innovation, but innovation projects  never receive investments.  In one company the top executive asked to eliminate non-strategic R&D investments.  The portfolio manager ranked all the projects and developed a list lowest ranked projects.  The executive overruled the entire list without any justification (they were his pet projects).

2. Strategic “Attention Deficit Disorder”: Executives do not allow adequate time to mature strategic initiatives and see their results.  I have seen this many times.  Most new technology or product development takes time.  Executives loose interest and change priorities.  This is very demoralizing for R&D teams.

3. Complex bureaucracies lacking accountability: Many times executives set up complex organization structures to satisfy (mainly) executive politics.   Other times, there are overlapping roles and responsibilities.  In either case, there is lack of accountability for different functions.  One part of the organization not working hard impacts morale everywhere.

4. Unactionable strategies and goals: Many times executives set up big goals but most teams do not know what to do to achieve those goals.  In one company the executives wrote a strategic plan which said cut costs and improve innovation (literally).  They then proceeded to tell everyone to achieve those goals.  No one knew what to do!

It is essential for managers to avoid these traps.  One key would be to keep employee perspective in mind and provide clarity on how everyone can contribute.  Other is to assess if there is a disconnect between the executive team perspective and that of employees at large.