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Distributed R&D: Innovate Like a Startup

By Joanne Jacobs

In our latest Handbook, we explore how to foster innovation with what we call the Distributed Research and Development (‘Distributed R&D’) method.  This differs from traditional enterprise oriented R&D, not just because it takes advantage of Lean Canvas process thinking, and is a fast prototyping innovation technique, but because it reduces the cost of failure.

The nature of innovation is that it involves experimentation. And where there is design for innovation, there will be failure. But in an increasingly time-sensitive and globally competitive business environment, innovation failure is a serious business risk.  This is particularly true of enterprise-scale research and development initiatives, where the capital expenditure required to set up and maintain research and development programs is high, and the gap between capital outlay and potential return on investment is stretched by innovation failure.  It is even possible to bankrupt a business with an R&D system where resource costs are high, while output levels are low, and those are at high risk of failure.

Is it any wonder, then, that businesses are turning away from R&D altogether?

But there’s also the counter argument: innovation and productivity are inextricably correlated.  Without continued R&D, firms risk losing both reputation and competitive positioning in the market, and could gradually decline through failure to invest in new products, technologies and processes.

The solution, then, is to enable R&D in a manner that minimises risk.  Silicon Valley mantra has for years extolled the merits of ‘fast failure‘.  But while the logic of fast failure is clear, it’s not always been clear how to execute, and some commentators have dismissed the notion of fast failure as mere hype, because they cannot see how it can be achieved.  But there is a way to rapidly prototype ideas in a manner that does minimise risk, and that embraces failure as a validation technique – and it is Distributed R&D.

In this Handbook, we explore the rationale for Distributed R&D, and we provide detailed instructions for setting up the first two stages of the process – Defining High Level Problems and the Innovation stage.  We explore Hackathons as venues for rapid prototyping, and we discuss how to progress Minimum Viable Products into incubated projects.

While we facilitate these Distributed R&D events as a core component of our business consultation offering, we are so confident in the need for Distributed R&D in business innovation, that we felt it was better to share the methodology. It’s not just a matter of the business need exceeding our own scalability, but we see opportunities to match the products and processes that arise from Distributed R&D exercises with businesses that could use these MVPs. Failure for one business unit may not necessarily be failure for another. We feel we can help collate ideas to ensure that business needs are met.  And we want to help businesses access thought leadership and product development that will help businesses to thrive in a age of profound change.

Download the Distributed R&D: Innovate Like a Startup Handbook here.

Image Credit: Window Display by Alex Liivet

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