How often have companies struggled with the balance between basic research versus product engineering that’s tied directly to revenue? Most companies simply give up and only focus on near-term product goals, but it’s a subject that’s spawned countless books, various theories, and – in some cases – legends. It’s not surprising that innovation is a subject that most companies struggle with – getting it wrong means millions of dollars wasted and lost opportunity. But getting it right can mean becoming a market leader or even defining entirely new markets – pretty exciting.
Balancing risky research with focused product development has been looked at through a tremendous number of lenses, perhaps one of the most interesting is the call to action found in Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen’s book focuses on the danger of being disrupted if you aren’t willing to disrupt your own business periodically – something most companies just can’t (or won’t) do. Legends exist of entities that get this right – the first iPhone from Apple, computing devices and even the cordless mouse from Xerox PARC, the first virtual reality goggles from VPL – all forward looking research initiatives that were both disruptive and profitable.
So what do I have to say on the subject? Well, given what’s going on with the pandemic, I’d like to look at the need for disruptive ideas and basic research through a different lens: that of immunology. In reading a great article in the New York Times today, I was struck by a quote from a researcher who finds herself in an important position in the hunt for a way to stop the Coronavirus. She didn’t set out to work on problems related to Coronavirus, but – like many basic researchers – was curious and fascinated by a particular set of questions, so pursued them:
“It’s following what you’re interested in, that’s what basic science is about. It’s, like, you don’t actually set out to cure the world or anything, but you follow your nose.”
When there is a large, global community of researchers like this – and an unpredictable pandemic arrives – we are in a great position to respond. If we had only been advancing science in areas that we found directly important, even nine months ago – we’d be scrambling even more. Instead we have over 100 different programs already underway looking for a vaccine – using very different approaches – all drawn from research that, until recently could have been viewed as unnecessary or even frivolous. The diversity arising from curiosity-based science that was already underway may very well save us.
You see, your company is really a lot like any other living organism. It grows (hopefully) and competes for limited resources in an open, unpredictable marketplace. Over time, a company that survives will specialize on what helped it survive, optimizing itself to fit market conditions, casting off things that aren’t key to gaining market share, and becoming good at what paid off in the past. In this view, a company like Amazon – that started as an online book retailer – was pushed by market conditions to become better and better at logistics. In a process that’s akin to evolution, other online book companies that didn’t get amazingly good at delivering books the day after they were ordered couldn’t survive.
However, if a company becomes overspecialized, it’s susceptible to disruption – in the same way an overspecialized species can quickly go extinct if it’s ecosystem is changed. When market conditions arise that no one could have predicted, companies that have not inoculated themselves against disruption by pursuing a healthy research and development program – can get sick, and even die. The rise of digital photography and the ascension of tiny cameras embedded in all our phones was the pandemic that put Kodak out of business – and they couldn’t respond because of overspecialization.
I’m partly speaking from firsthand knowledge. Mersive, my own company, pursues a variety of “what if” research projects related to the Workplace. Some of those projects can raise some eyebrows – “you’re working on what?” – and some have made it into our product suite, hopefully making people’s lives at work better. However – now that the workplace is dramatically disrupted – you can bet that we’ve dusted off some curiosity-based projects that suddenly find themselves critically important. Like the researcher I quoted earlier, these projects were “following their nose” and suddenly have the potential to make the workplace safer and easier to manage for all of us as we return to work. (Stay tuned for updates to the Mersive 2020 roadmap plan.)
While it’s hard to fund long-term, basic research when the pressures of revenue and performance are top-of-mind every day, I’d encourage you to think of that research as your ever-important inoculation against market disruption. When the time comes, that inoculation could be the thing that turns disruption into opportunity.