Image: "DARPA Phoenix concept 2" by DARPA. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


What if there was a robot in space that could build and repair satellites in geosynchronous earth orbit? It could dramatically reduce costs, introduce new scalability to the orbital payload model, and make revolutionary earth-space systems possible - the kind we’ve only dreamed about in science fiction.

Well, it’s not science fiction. It’s real.


It’s called the “Phoenix” Program and its being developed by DARPA, the DoD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In fact, DARPA released the results of Phase 1 testing and validation of the program earlier this year. The results were so positively encouraging that Phase 2 is already in development for further assessment and evaluation.

These are the kinds of high-risk/high-return projects that DARPA is famous for, but they are not exclusive to the U.S. Department of Defense. Several large corporations around the world have internal advanced research groups to develop new and innovative products and services. The truth is, any organization can develop an in-house R&D group, but most are discouraged from doing so by the costs, risks, and management of such an enterprise.

Unfortunately, those don’t seem to be the primary elements that determine the successful outcome of a research project. In his book, Doing Capitalism in an Innovation Economy, venture capitalist and economist William Janeway declares a startling hypothesis, "Efficiency is the enemy of innovation. The processes of innovation move through trial and error, and error and error."

What we’re learning in today’s innovation economy is that the critical factor of any successful R&D effort is the ability to make meaningful connections from discovery as you progress through unanticipated challenges. Creativity is a process, not a commodity, and a practice for building on lateral, multidimensional thinking. But how does an organization kick-start or validate the creative R&D process?

In the 1970’s, today’s DARPA was known as ARPA, and its Director was a pioneering engineer named George H. Heilmeier, who would later be known for his contributions in the development of liquid crystal displays or LCD’s. He believed that a basic set of questions needed to be answered before any research project or product development should be considered. In other words, if you don’t understand the scope of the problem(s) you’re solving, your chances for success are quite slim.

Heilmeier developed these basic questions that are known today as:

The Heilmeier Catechism

• What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
• How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
• What's new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
• Who cares?
• If you're successful, what difference will it make?
• What are the risks and the payoffs?
• How much will it cost?
• How long will it take?
• What are the midterm and final "exams" to check for success?


I worked on a project with a DARPA research scientist who was presenting at an annual DARPAtech conference. I can’t describe the details of the project, but the concept was based on emerging technologies for revolutionizing human prosthetics. In order to design the motion graphics and slides for the scientist’s presentation, I needed to get a full-scope understanding of his thesis, or at least as much as my security clearance would allow. We couldn’t do this over the phone, of course, so I had to meet with the program manager at a secure DARPA office. His explanation was a point-for-point answer to each of the questions in Heilmeier’s Catechism. Especially, the answer to, "If you're successful, what difference will it make?"

That Q&A session with the DARPA scientist forever changed the way I researched, designed, and developed with clients.

Today, I help my clients build creative “think-tanks” starting on a very small scale with defined “deliverables” and we work our way back to the technology. I use this process to teach my clients that having an R&D culture is just as advantageous as having a dedicated R&D department. We start by asking “elegant” questions to bring their vision into focus. I help them mitigate inefficiencies by accounting for a “failure budget”, converting risk into new learning models, and recognizing diverse talent to build teams that manage themselves successfully.

Your organization may not be dreaming of satellite robots in space, but you can imagine a science fiction concept for developing innovative ideas. If you can easily describe the problem you’re attempting to solve, and answer the questions that bring its challenges to the surface, you will be sharing a path with the most formidable scientific minds in the world.

How does your company create an R&D culture within its organization? What has produced the best results and how do you mitigate for inefficiencies?
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This article was originally published on LinkedIn September 16, 2014

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