By Neill Hunt
The trial and error process is not only tedious, but also very high-risk. However, it is an uncertainty organisations must gamble on in order to prosper. In this article, the author highlights the important factors that contribute to the success of research and development, namely: collaboration, innovation, creativity, and a fresh perspective.
Research and development isn’t always about getting it right. It’s easy to forget that you aren’t just looking for the right solution to a problem, but also ruling out those that don’t work. It is this combined knowledge that will allow you to find the ultimate solution.
Never has this been more apparent than during NASA’s Apollo missions and race to the moon. From the moment that President Kennedy announced his intention to see Americans land on the moon until the Eagle landed in July 1969, thousands of scientists and inventors worked tirelessly to design a spacecraft capable of getting to the moon and back. During this exhausting process, which we’ve been reminded of this year thanks to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, many ideas were tried, tested and then abandoned.
Writer Charles Fishman explains: “When [President] Kennedy said, ‘Let’s go to the moon,’ it was simply impossible. The tools to do it did not exist. In eight years, NASA and the 400,000 people working for NASA literally invented the rocket, the spaceship that could land on the moon, the space suits. All of that had to be invented from scratch.”
The inventors went down many blind alleys before discovering suitable solutions. If NASA employees hadn’t had the permission to explore new and potentially left-field ideas and make mistakes in the lab, I am certain they would never have made it to the moon.
It’s not just in the aerospace industry where trial and error are important. The lubricant WD-40 earnt its catchy name because it was the company’s 40th attempt to create a degreaser and rust protection solvent. Similarly, engineers Marc Chavannes and Al Fielding created bubble wrap in 1960 in an attempt to create a trendy new textured wallpaper. It was a total failure, but the wrap was picked up by IBM who used it to package a newly launched computer during transport. It became an overnight success. Another fantastic example of trial and error comes from Dyson, who tested 5,271 prototypes before he found a vacuum that worked, and now it is one of the top-selling vacuums of all time.
An R&D team must feel able to fail – some of our best and most successful products wouldn’t exist if failures hadn’t come first. Innovators must be able to rule out ideas that don’t work and not always feel the commercial pressure to succeed at the first attempt, nor feel that unsuccessful attempts are a burden. At Element Six, we try to encourage our people to use these learning experiences as drivers and motivators to succeed.
Collaborating with customers
Our ultimate objective is to devise brilliant solutions that solve our customers’ toughest problems. To do that we have to close our learning loops quickly, or we won’t keep up with our increasingly dynamic markets. We use cutting-edge lab tests to iterate products in the early stages, but there is no substitute for live field testing. That means we need to get out of the building to gather feedback from our customers and our customers’ customers, and do that as early as possible. We use beta samples and prototypes for that purpose.
Element Six is fortunate to have many customers who are willing to collaborate like this because they understand that it is the most effective way to find the best, bespoke solution as quickly as possible. This sort of approach fosters trust and means a business can receive vital input in the developmental stages.
What if it doesn’t work out?
I am a true believer that there is always value in innovation. Not only do you gain insight on what doesn’t work, but individuals gain various skills from projects that ultimately don’t take off. Who’s to say that future successful projects would have worked, or been developed at that speed, if staff didn’t already hold the correct niche skillset gained from failed projects?
For example, some of NASA’s discarded solutions have gone on to become significant inventions in their own right. In 2013, the world’s first practical rechargeable hearing aid batteries were launched and came about as a direct result of work done by NASA during and after Apollo.
Within Element Six, we also saw this first-hand when we were commissioned to develop an aerospace component for a customer. This project unfortunately did not lead to a commercial product, however our team took elements of the concept and creatively applied them to other industries. The team realised that some of the technology developed had the potential to work as a speaker dome for high-end sound systems. We have now been producing speaker domes for over 15 years and marvel at how the technology developed for one industry was cleverly utilised to innovate in another.
These are perfect examples that demonstrate the value of R&D – even if it doesn’t yield benefits immediately, it might down the line. Breakthroughs might not come within your working life or the sector you are initially aiming for, but it is all part of the creative process.
Helping creativity pulse through the business
We believe giving our teams the chance to work on a variety of projects helps to ensure that creativity remains high. Whether an idea bears fruit or not, working with different people on different concepts keeps people fresh.
But there is a balance to strike between exploring new ideas and throwing away bad ones. While other skills can be gained, if you are following a certain hypothesis that is continually falling short of the expected outcome, it’s important to know when to walk away from the concept. It is not easy to stop a project that is not desirable, feasible or viable. Often, projects will have been worked on for long periods of time by talented people and for that reason, as a leader, it’s crucial to communicate to everyone that despite a project or concept coming to an end, no one has failed. No idea is a bad idea, it just might not be right for the business now. It is so essential to separate people from ideas, but this can be really difficult as people become attached to their projects and ambitions.
We never want to stifle creativity or dishearten staff, so we work hard to find ways to encourage people to push boundaries. We offer all our employees 10% innovation time so that our team members have the freedom to work on projects that mean something to them. This can be used to explore ideas that interest them, even if there is no obvious immediate commercial value in it. This helps to ensure innovation isn’t repressed by the drive for commercialisation initially and ultimately, we hope their ideas may lead to exciting outcomes in the future for the company.
A fresh approach to R&D
I came to R&D from a background in strategy and prior to that, as an army officer. I am the second non-technical director of R&D at Element Six and with that I am trying to bring some of my experiences from my past career into the way we deploy R&D at the company. For example, we have implemented ‘scrum management’ techniques, which help us to be more agile and reactive in our approach to work. The vision comes from the software industry – every day, we host quick meetings and run through what the team has to do, what is in progress, what needs to be quality checked and what projects are complete. We focus on hindrances and how to remove barriers – by doing so you inevitably find the team prioritising together. So far, we have found the scrum management, tweaked to suit R&D, to be a power tool that makes the team more collaborative, fostering increased innovation.
As a non-technical leader, I have learnt that managing a diverse team of talented individuals with their own unique sets of expertise can be a process of trial and error in itself. In the end, it all comes down to culture, encouraging innovation at all levels, and acknowledging individual expert skillsets as a vital asset to the business. To do so, we offer two career paths; a technical route and a leadership route. By doing so, we are recognising both forms of experience within the team, not just the traditional leadership traits. It is important for technical careers to be just as valued and successful to retain the highly skilled talent needed to bring visionary and innovative ideas to life.
Ultimately, we want to learn fast and be patient with people but impatient with ideas. I am sure that’s what got NASA to the moon, and it is certainly helping our business explore new ideas and create a workplace where we are happy to try something and then walk away from it, confident that this process will absolutely lead us to more successes than failures in the long run.
About the Author
Neill Hunt was appointed to Executive Director, Innovation at Element Six in September 2018. He is responsible for new product development, long-term R&D, engineering development, applications testing and support, and intellectual property.
Neill joined Element Six in 2013 as head of corporate strategy before assuming senior management roles in R&D. Prior to joining Element Six, Neill was a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and a corporate strategist at Equinor. He has a BA from Middlebury College and an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, where he was an Edward Tuck Scholar. In-between he served as an infantry officer in the British Army.