26 Oct 2005   |   Viewpoint

A question of trust

If you want to lead innovation in R&D, don’t neglect the crucial human factor, says Georges Haour from the IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland.

If you want to lead innovation in R&D, don’t neglect the crucial human factor. In R&D, motivation matters even more than elsewhere – and it’s up to managers to learn how to do it.

Georges Haour, IMD, Lausanne

You know the scenario. It is first day at work, and Dr. Christine Clever, fresh from getting a PhD in microelectronics, has checked in at the R&D unit of her new employer, XYZChips. No, the receptionist does not know about her coming; her new boss, Bob, cannot be reached. Finally, she is able to come in, since the HR department does have her listed as a new employee. Bob’s assistant escorts her to the appropriate building. There, nobody knows where Christine's office is. One hour later, Bob emerges from an internal meeting and briefly welcomes Christine. What a disastrous welcome on the part of a company that you can bet would feature the banal statement that "people constitute our most important asset" in its annual report!

Summoned to become a somewhat more "predictable" element in technology firms, the R&D function is bombarded with a panoply of management tools. At best, these tools enable a more customer-oriented innovation process. But they often make us forget how crucial the human factor is to the success of that process.

Indeed, managing long-term research is altogether different from managing development projects. However, the single most important element in bringing a technical idea to market effectively is the motivation of the staff involved. Large amounts of resources may be invested in R&D with little returns: the impact of motivation on productivity is much larger in R&D than in any other function. In order to ensure motivation, managers must consistently have appropriate practices. Here are some key tips.

Effectively integrate new hires. Beyond the fact that managers should hire the best and the brightest, in other words, individuals better than themselves, they must make time for frequent, professional dialogue with newcomers. Managers must resist the temptation of exiling new hires to a remote location and giving them an un-challenging project. Our Bob above will probably do exactly that. This will indeed protect his time, but it will hinder the development of Christine, who, as a result, will probably leave for lack of challenges.

Walk around. Each innovation project is unique and characterised by technical and business uncertainties. Managers must frequently interact with project leaders and inquire about progress, so as to provide timely and meaningful inputs. In particular, at the outset of the project, novel ideas must be enriched by the suggestions and guidance from managers; this requires extensive discussions, since this "fuzzy front end" is full of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Be a coach. Young researchers consider that excellence in science and technology is the only thing that counts. Through frequent dialogue, managers progressively develop a more customer-oriented business sense and an entrepreneurial perspective in their staff. In this way, knowledge workers will progressively come up with technology-intensive business ideas, rather than technical inventions, technology providing a toolbox for enhancing the competitiveness of the firm.

In brief, members of an innovation project must be able to enjoy a precious commodity: trust in their management. Organisational changes must be carefully explained; for example, uncertainties following a merger between two companies must be rapidly dissipated, because, in a phase of organisational limbo,innovative spirits are brain-dead. Similarly, reasons for interrupting an innovation project must be convincingly justified to the project members. Otherwise, the resulting de-motivation will be devastating. In fact, explaining the rationale for “killing a project” must be taken as an opportunity to pedagogically develop the business sense of technical personnel.

Managers must take the time to coach their staff into becoming researcher–entrepreneurs, at ease with the complexity of operating in multi-functional, multi-cultural and, increasingly, multi-actor, innovation projects. A major bottleneck in technology firms is indeed the scarcity of effective project leaders. One way to accelerate their development is to have them do well prepared internships in other parts of the organisation. These short periods can constitute enormously fruitful learning experiences if they stimulate the development of the individuals in a timely fashion.

Georges Haour is Professor of Technology/Innovation Management at the executive education institute IMD and partner of the investment company Generics, in Cambridge, UK. Previously, he was a manager at Battelle.

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