What to Consider When Starting an R&D Program
When I began at Shockoe in 2017, one of the personal draws for me was the fact that there was a clear commitment to pursuing the use of new and innovative technologies. In 2018, we began pursuing R&D in earnest, beginning to identify methods for vetting new technologies and determining how to best use these technologies to improve our processes and help our clients explore new opportunities. 2019 has marked the first full year where we have begun the year with a coordinated plan that has stemmed from past learnings, and after the first quarter of implementation, I am excited to say that we are making significant progress on the execution of our plan. For those of you who might be considering implementing a similar program at your organization, or for those of you who might be interested in learning about or specific R&D initiatives (such as our recent consumer flooring visualizer that we shared at MWC in Barcelona), I wanted to share some of our learnings up to this point.
Takeaway Number One: Have a Plan
And make it as detailed as possible. This might sound obvious, but in reality, It’s easy to say that you want to commit to R&D. When you get into the thick of it, however, it becomes easy to let R&D take a back-seat to more pressing matters. By having a thorough plan in place from the outset, it becomes easier to reach goals, hold people accountable, and enjoy the ride of what can be an exciting and stressful initiative. When crafting your plan, consider the following:
- Identify Goals – we knew that we wanted to accomplish several things with our R&D plan. First, we wanted to create a mechanism for developing and vetting processes and technologies that would improve how we solve problems for our clients. Second, we wanted to make sure that these new processes and technologies would be embraced by our team, and that they would be able to learn and implement them.
- Identify Technologies – given the breadth of what we could pursue with an R&D plan, we knew we had to narrow our focus. Broadly speaking, we have committed solely to emerging technologies, which we define as those technologies that are currently nascent, yet show significant long-term promise for process improvement. More specifically, we have identified emerging technologies that we see as critically important to improving the mobile experience: voice, augmented, and virtual reality.
- Identify Outcomes – with the goals and technologies in place, we set specific tactical outcomes into our plan that would address a variety of industries and end users. Ultimately, we determined that our plan would execute on six projects throughout the year, each covering a different industry vertical (ranging from energy to finance to retail), with three meeting consumer user needs and three meeting enterprise user needs. Ultimately, each project would take learnings from the prior projects in order to apply shared findings across a broad spectrum of applications.
- Identify Resource Needs – ultimately, we knew that this would need to be the most detailed and thorough piece of the plan, in order to make sure that we could execute on the plan as sustainably as possible. As such, I outlined resources by type for every day of every project through the end of the year. This was critically necessary to make sure that our financial and hiring projections could account for the exact needs of our team, including this dedicated R&D allocation. By detailing at the granular level, I knew that it would make it significantly easier for our delivery team to execute on the plan once we got into full swing. Which brings me to my next takeaway…
Takeaway Number Two: Communicate the Plan
- Cross-Disciplinary Communication – as a small-to-medium sized company, we do not have dedicated “R&D resources” —rather, team members from each of our practice areas dedicate some portion of their time to pursuing R&D initiatives as needed. As such, it was critically important that I communicate with each practice lead as early as possible in order to solicit feedback on appropriate strategic and tactical directions. Through several discussions with each of my colleagues, I was able to hear their individual goals and concerns, and make sure that we could implement a plan that was truly cross-disciplinary and would meet the overall goals and needs of the company as a whole.
- Iterate on the Plan – the goal of this level of communication at the outset is to allow for rapid iteration prior to implementation. In the span of a few weeks, we were able to identify strengths and weaknesses in the plan, allowing us to build towards the greatest areas of opportunity and quickly position ourselves to execute in a sustainable and successful way.
Takeaway Number Three: Execute
- Collaborate on Execution – the reality is that, while communication is critically important to the formation of a successful R&D plan, it is equally if not more important for successful execution. I have found that in the first quarter of the year, I have had significant communications with every practice lead in order to ensure that we are implementing the plan as we have envisioned. Each project has required a strong connection between strategy, design, and development, as well as overall operations, finance, HR, and marketing. This has been no small task, and I strongly advise you to include time for collaboration and communication in your execution plan.
- Write a Brief – the overarching company-wide plan might give team members a big picture view of the R&D goals, the specific projects have required a bit more focused task creation prior to execution. Specifically, we’ve been treating each plan as a specific set of business objectives from a given industry, using prior research to recognize major pain points and determine if/how these emerging technologies might be able to improve processes and/or add operational efficiencies. Some of these objectives stem from specific work with some of our clients and partners, while others are use cases that we’ve arrived at through examining industry analysis in publications such as Gartner and Forrester.
- Day-to-Day Execution – while our overall goals and specific project outcomes are set prior to beginning a project, it has been very important to recognize the cadence and outcome of the day-to-day activities. Specifically, the balance and interplay of education, implementation, and documentation. Depending on the day, task, or individual, this balance may shift more heavily towards one area; however, it has been important that we seek to make sure that all three of these are accounted for on a regular basis.
Takeaway Number Four: Be Flexible
- Adjusting the Plan – The reality of creating a very detailed plan at the outset of the year is that there will inevitably be unforeseen circumstances that require shifting from the initial ambition. Knowing how to assess the need for adjustment, and when to make the adjustment, is critical. As you gain learnings from the R&D initiatives themselves, this will inform how you pivot, lending new perspective into how you execute. By maintaining this flexibility and adjusting when necessary, we’ve been able to get great output from our team, and we’ve kept a nimble and agile approach the prevents us from investing too heavily in the wrong technology, process, or objective.
- Expect the Unexpected – the reality with R&D, particularly with emerging technologies, is that something will inevitably surface that is completely different than what was initially planned for at the outset. This is part of the process and, while it can be stressful, it can also be a big part of the fun. Learning new things leads to new adventures, which is one of our core values here at Shockoe.
Takeaway Number Five: Communicate the Outcomes
- Internally – whether propriety or simply exploratory, we view it as critical that our R&D findings get documented internally in order to educate and train team members who might not have been on the R&D initiative itself. Given that we have invested in these pursuits with the goal of both vetting and adopting the new tech and processes, it’s important that everyone involved have the opportunity to learn from and weigh in on the findings. Moving forward, it’s equally important that our teammates be able to take these learnings and findings, and use them to add value to our clients through our new service offerings.
- Externally – depending on the nature of your R&D program, this may be less critical. For Shockoe, we see the R&D program as a way of improving what we do by pursuing things that challenge us. We’re proud of what we do, and we find excitement in sharing our work. For us, external communication includes a few things. First, we like to work with our existing clients/partners to make sure that they understand our work, and seek their feedback and participation in future projects. Second, we use traditional marketing and PR channels to help seek external feedback from trade organizations, industry analysts, and potential clients. This can take the form of a variety of methods, including press releases, social media, white papers, and… you know… maybe a blog post.
With over a decade of customer and user experience strategy under his belt, Dan Cotting is Shockoe’s Director of Immersive Technology and resident “future-tech-crazy-person.” Dan fully believes that virtual and augmented reality will pave the way for an entirely new approach to business operations: improving the lives of both employees and consumers, while simultaneously increasing business efficiency and productivity. When he isn’t dreaming about this “Ready Player One” future, Dan spends his free time playing bass guitar, practicing 18th century photographic techniques, brewing beer, and enjoying time with his wife Kelly and son Marshall, and their five rescue pets. He holds a B.S. from Boston University and an M.S. from Virginia Commonwealth University.