MANHASSET, NY " The recently announced HP Labs reorganization and a subsequent phone conversation with Prith Banerjee, HP Labs director, reminded me of the eternal struggle, on the part of corporations, to "manage" technology breakthroughs and innovations.
The crux of the issue in any big corporate labs' efforts to manage its R&D talents lies in two questions:
- How long can any corporate management committee "put up with" a "brilliant" researcher obsessed with a pet project that seems, despite delays and budget overruns, to be going nowhere?
And equally important,
-How does a researcher convince at least one manager to champion this pet project and articulate his obsession into a cause that eventually leads to a commercial breakthrough?
The first edition of a book, published in 1986, entitled "Breakthroughs! How the Vision and Drive of Innovators in Sixteen Companies Created Commercial Breakthroughs that Swept the World," written by consultants at Arthur D. Little, Inc., chronicled and analyzed such well-known breakthrough examples including 3M's post-it (discovery of unique adhesive polymer, originally recognized as "a glue that doesn't glue"), Raytheon's magnetron (which was "a consumer product trapped within a company that didn't make consumer products," but later became the microwave oven) and Sony's Walkman (which started out as a "dumb product that couldn't record but only play back").
In their last chapter, the authors concluded: "Breakthroughs have come from creative teams that were ignored by their organizations, supported only belatedly by their organizations, misunderstood by their organizations, even assaulted by their organizations. Breakthroughs can emerge just as readily from no organization at all."
In other words, as the authors wrote: "Creativity is an elusive quarry, even for those who can afford to fund a big hunting party."
This sounds like really bad news for anyone in corporate management striving to bring order to hundreds of small R&D projects and to find a scientific method to identify winners (or promising prospects) from losers at an earlier stage of the R&D game.
But listening to HP's Banerjee explaining his newly instituted process of reorganizing his 600 people labs in 23 projects, it occurred to me that although its effectiveness is yet to be proven, HP may be -- just maybe -- onto something.
In a process that I think should be best described as the "eHarmony of R&D match-making," HP gave secret ballots to every researcher in its lab to choose one lab director " out of 23 " that he or she prefers to work with. In parallel, HP allowed each lab director to confidentially select first and second choices among 20 researchers he or she wants on his or her team.
According to Banerjee, the confidential voting on both sides yielded an 80 percent match between lab directors and researchers.
HP Labs' next big step is to let researchers to submit their own projects by March 15th. Banerjee assumes this self-selection processing among researchers will yield only their best projects. Those research proposals will be winnowed down by May 1st to no more than thirty "big bets" -- selected by an HP review board consisting equally of lab directors, business people and HP Fellows.
But again, what strikes me as unique is HP's people-oriented match-making process. For any great technology breakthrough to become a commercial success, a researcher needs to be emotionally driven and persistent, but more important, he needs an ally willing to share his passion.
While management is usually out of its depth whenever it tries to devise a "skunkworks" environment conducive to creative ferment, I couldn't think of a better way to foster breakthroughs than counting on lab directors who are on the same wavelength as their favorite researchers.
By any measure, that's a great start.