Challenges in Pioneering R&D

In product design, having an R&D function is considered vital to a company’s survival since they have to explore new materials, new technology and new products to meet (or create) future/wider market needs. In a similar sense, R&D is vital for consulting businesses as well. Stby has been a proud pioneer of Design Research for 20 years, from methodologies to research topics, and we have always devoted substantial non-billable hours to explore new things on the horizon. This is a considerable effort for a small agency. In my role as R&D Lead at Stby, I set out a series of conversations with other small design research agencies in the Reach network to find out how they do R&D work to keep pushing boundaries and pioneering their expertise.

What is R&D for small creative agencies?

What I mean by pioneering R&D in this context is not big-budget revolutionary product developments by big manufacturers, tech companies or science institutes, I am looking at how to use limited resources to develop new knowledge beyond ‘best practices out there’ and focus on finding new ways to do research or contribute meaningfully to critical peer-to-peer conversations in Design Research. Such work benefits the individual and contributes to the company’s overall development. Typical R&D activities include doing experiments focused on a specific focus or practices, and hosting knowledge-exchange talks, book clubs, conferences and networking with pioneers in similar or connected fields. 

What are the challenges we face?

In my conversations with our partners from the Reach network, I found four challenges commonly faced in R&D work:

1. Balancing the risk in R&D efforts

This is a tricky balance to strike. R&D should be free and exploratory and without fear of failure. There is a certain thrill of taking risks and finding unknown opportunities. ‘Permission to fail’ is essential for pioneering, yet it can be risky for a small company, running on quick project turnarounds. Companies can’t leave R&D projects that consume too much staff time/effort unmanaged. Company directors regularly face dilemmas regarding R&D, such as, ‘Is this R&D relevant to the development of our company? How much impact can we expect in the near or far future? What risks are we facing if we devote non-billable hours to this?’.

permission to fail is essential for pioneering, yet it can be risky for a small company running on quick project turnarounds

At Stby, it took us a few years to find the right level of scaffolding to make it work for the company and the individuals inside the company and to make sure that the learning never stops.

2. Losing momentum during the process

We have to secure time for R&D to ensure it happens, but it’s common to experience a few stop-start moments during these activities. In the agency world, client work is an absolute priority, so everything gives way to client deadlines. Some R&D projects have to be put on hold, to make time and space for a client project, but be careful when this happens, when a project is put on hold for too long, the interest wears off and people tend to ‘forget about it’. In this case, the effort is wasted when the learning is lost and the activities fizzle out. One way to keep the learning alive within the company is to create a learning objective to share after each R&D effort, making sure to schedule a knowledge share-out or regular catchups with colleagues as soon as possible.

make sure you put a sharing session in the calendar or set up a regular catchup to share learnings. Don’t say ‘do it when you have time’, as then you will never get around to it

Chin Chin, co-founder of Somia, Indonesia

Merging R&D efforts with client projects is a great way to deal with this conflict between client work and R&D (when appropriate). We sometimes have R&D ideas on our wish list, and when a client project comes along, and we find a chance to try it out alongside the project, that’s always the best. It can be a new tool, a new feature of an existing tool, or a routine practice. 

Collaborating with others is another way to combat momentum loss, as having a collaborator means you are held accountable by someone else. You also tap into their knowledge and network to offload some of your work when distributing the learnings. This maximises the impact of R&D efforts. Within Stby, we discovered that it works most effectively when you find a buddy to work on an R&D project together. Within the Reach network, we have also made a few efforts to collaborate in R&D, but we are still finding the best way to approach this. Cross-company R&D increases the need for coordination, yet the impact is bigger because the learning is shared widely.

3. Losing relevance or focus in exploration

Individual passions and interests often motivate R&D in small companies. The sweet spot is where individual interest overlaps with company needs. A common challenge in this setup is the difficulty of keeping track of individual interests. As different avenues of the topic areas are explored, ensuring this exploration stays relevant to the company’s needs can become difficult. It’s common to lose focus when we explore something fuzzy and difficult to define. People start to feel lost when exploring alone, and this is when another person’s involvement can add valuable help. The visibility of what each individual is interested in exploring outside client projects can be low, so it can be challenging to pull in other people in the company to help pivot the project to strengthen its focus.

4. Bite off more than you can chew

It’s the nature of R&D exploration that you don’t always find a clear answer at the end of the tunnel. The problems we explore are naturally complex and need iterations because there are no simple answers. Individuals may feel defeated when they take up an ambition too big to get their heads and hands around, therefore, we accept that some topics get picked up and dropped again by different members of the team. But when someone else picks something up, we aim to build a focus on each iteration. So, in each iteration, we explore fully and freely, but towards the end, we come back to find relevance and focus before we move on to the next iteration. Seeing R&D ambitions as an investment is a good way to look at this. In each iteration, we make sure to get some return on the time and effort different members put in, so in the long run we collectively reach the ambition we set for ourselves.

there are two ways to look at this type of work, as investment or as tax. For us, it’s an investment… It keeps us looking outside the bubble and helps us judge that we are not falling behind

Cal, Co-founder of Matchboxology, South Africa

Conclusion

It seems that many of the creative agencies in the Reach network share the same challenges in R&D. Strangely, not many people around us talk about doing R&D in knowledge-driven practices like Design Research. I’m curious how others manage R&D for their company. Do you recognise the challenges as described above? And what are your tactics to mitigate these challenges?

Qin Han