The evolution of the corporate labs 

Edison is credited with the creation of the first corporate research lab. In contrast to corporate R&D activity the research labs have pushed the boundaries of science and engineering and brought to the world the transistor, unix and C, fiber optics communication, Ethernet, cellphones, and even evidence for the Big Bang. These labs were famous for hiring the best and brightest scientists and then basically letting them do their own thing. Some were guided by the needs of the corporation, and others were more free spirited. In the 70s and 80s the perceived value of the labs was eroded and as the corporates found themselves out innovated by the new kids on the block such as Microsoft, Intel, and later Google, Apple and others. The new comers did not have the free wheeling research approach and have typically focused their research activity deep in their technical roadmap. 

In the past couple of years this has changed and today many of the new kids have their own corporate research labs. However the new labs  resemble Edison Menlow Park more than AT&T Bells lab. The new labs tend to focus on grand projects which aim to disrupt existing markets such as autonomous cars, VR and AR replacement for smart phone, global internet reach or even space travel. The similarity to Edison is that the vision of these labs is laid down by the founders or chief executives of the companies and not by free wheeling scientists. Time will tell if the new breed of labs fare better in scientific research or business outcome than the previous ones. 

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When things don’t work

R&D is a delicate balance between optimism and realism. During development things don’t work. it requires tremendous effort to debug problems and make the things work. 

The realistic voice lingering in the background seems to speak words of wisdom. Maybe the theory is wrong, maybe there are no bugs just a problem in the assumptions. While this voice is important in quarterly strategic meetings, this voice kills the energy and enthusiasm required to push forward and weed out the bugs. 

In projects, especially high risk ones,  we need to keep in mind that when things don’t behave as expected it’s not always the problem with the expectations but more often with the things. 

Never wait. 

Often, when I find myself advising or mentoring entrepreneurs they say ” we are just waiting a few days till we have our important meeting/investor feedback/POC ready” or a wide range of other reasons. 

Waiting is always a bad option. It instills passivity and overemphasizes random occurances in the life of a project.  Customer leads fizzle out, investors get cold feet, development gets stuck, and in general bright skies become overcast in the blink of an eye. 

The proactive option to waiting is to execute a strategic plan which well communicates the project plan to all potential stakeholders. That crucial meeting is one of many. Some occur in parallel, some serially. The outcome of a single meeting, or conversely a project milestone should never be posed as a critical aspect of any plan. Things always fail or come short of expectations. That’s why a long range plan helps all stakeholders maintain perspective even in rough waters.