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Designing a Successful Research & Development Project

Updated: Apr 5

When faced with the a novel problem companies will often embark on a R&D project as a way to develop new tech with the goal of leap frogging the competition. R&D projects is unlike traditional projects and there are a few important details to keep in mind.

  1. Make sure everyone agrees on what success means: The goal in a true R&D project is to learn and what you might learn is that the thing you are trying do is impossible. That is well and good but if the executive team funded the project thinking they were paying $X to get Y% improvement on process Z and six months later the R&D team returns with a NULL result no one is going to be happy. Before you even consider taking on an R&D project you need to decide exactly what success means and make sure everyone involved understands the objective. To be clear you can target the project in any way that makes sense and there is no universal best approach but everyone needs to understand what the chosen approach is.

  2. The goal needs to be concise: Yes there may be all sorts of constraints and limitations on the solution but if you cannot express the gist of the desired outcome in a single sentence you have a problem.

  3. The bigger the goal the lower the odds of success: Very simply if you set out to make a massive game changing improvement in some technology or process the odds of success are vastly lower than if you choose a more modest goal. You should keep this in mind when choosing goals and timelines.

  4. Insist on short sprints with clear deliverables: It is absolutely critical when embarking on a project that the team deliver regular updates on their progress and that the continued effort on the project be evaluated. It is absolutely acceptable for an R&D project to be halted midway through because the team has realized that the goal is unobtainable or that the approach being taken is not optimal. It is far better to end a project early then waste time and money that could be better spent elsewhere.

  5. Remember success is cumulative: Building on the previous point imagine you have a product and you want to reduce the cost. It is important to remember that a rapid series of 2% improvements might be a far better route than spending months working for a 10% reduction. Going further R&D teams take time to build and learn to really work well together a quick turn around on an relatively achievable goal is a great way to start.

  6. Do not try to find a problem for a new solution: Whenever you have a project that assumes some large part of the solution you are asking for trouble. A goal statement like: 'Reduce customer wait time by 10% by using AI' would be a lot stronger if you removed the 'by using AI' part. AI may in fact be exactly the right solution but by requiring that the team use AI you have limited their ability to be creative and worse tempted them to cram a solution in where it is only going to cause problems.

  7. Do not unnecessarily constrain the solution: Leaders have a terrible habit of assuming a solution and constraining their team to less productive avenues of thought. We saw a perfect example of this a few years ago when a team was tasked with significantly reducing the cost of manufacturing a product. Fortunately the team was skilled enough to ignore the constraint and instead stepped back and evaluated the overall cost of the product and realised that a trivial redesign could cut the cost of shipping to the customer significantly. As this was a low cost consumer product the reduction in the cost of shipping was greater than the entire manufacturing cost. If the team had stayed in the bounds they were given they could not possibly have delivered the result they did.

Hopefully that list gives you a few things to think about as you are designing your project. If you have questions or want to discuss a project in-depth do not hesitate to reach out to us at

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