Research and Other Hard Things

April 1, 2010  - By

Once again, I reach into the mail bag to pull out this gem, from someone both high up and deep down in administrative matters relating to GPS and other technologies. Herewith:


Two quotes — with Some Accompanying Thoughts

“If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?”
—Albert Einstein
Too often these days we seem driven to produce, forgetting the purpose and value of research and development.  R&D allows us to assess alternatives, identify and mitigate risks, and develop practicable plans to achieve results.  It promotes an iterative process that moves us steadily towards our goals.  It understands both of the 80/20 rules: First, that achieving 80% of the solution usually takes only  20% of allocated resources, and second, that for  any normal program, things will go wrong 20% of the time, so plan accordingly.

The fact is that we simply do not do enough real research and development.  We have forgotten that the development of products or systems or solutions does not proceed on a single path point-to-point.  It is a continuum that has many ideas going in, a reasonable number that survive intermediate vetting processes, and a manageable field of candidate solutions coming out, from which to pick “the best” alternative.

We are not comfortable planning for sufficient small failures to ensure that we will not end up with one big one.  We limit the potential value of our successes by not supporting  wild and crazy ideas — even though such ideas may hold the key to real and sustained improvements.  We are too risk adverse.  We are too “results – NOW!” oriented.  We are afraid of failures – even small ones.  We are scared to dream.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”
—John F. Kennedy

Sadly, we have lost what made us great in the past: our willingness to take risks, fight for ideals, vigorously debate technical and operational alternatives, and move forward as one — either towards a celebration of a successful conclusion or, if nothing else, a celebration of a significant learning experience from which we can dust ourselves off and do better next time.   We have abandoned our can-do attitude for lists of excuses of why we cannot.  We over-think and over analyze and over-control everything — at every level.  Most seriously of all, we have given up seeing ourselves as one team with one goal.  Everyone’s looking out for themselves — with more time spent looking back in fear than forging new pathways forward.

The question is not “Where have all the leaders gone?” but rather “As leaders, what can each of us do to re-build and re-energize our risk taking leadership structure, our can-do team culture, our engineering inquisitiveness, our research and development mentality?

As with all things, the solution starts with the true recognition of the problem.

Therapy, anyone?

Sleep was what I wanted, you know what I got.  Wide awake, staying up late, wishing I was not.

This article is tagged with , and posted in Opinions

About the Author:

Alan Cameron is editor-in-chief and publisher of GPS World magazine, where he has worked since 2000. He also writes the monthly GNSS Design & Test e-Newsletter and the Wide Awake blog.

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