Futureproofing and the R&D Dilemma

At the last TEA mixer the topic of Research and Development and preparing for the future came up, and I had a good discussion with some folks about where advances actually come from.

The cutting edge never comes from clients, and only comes from setting aside time for R&D and explorations, preferably outside the confines of a job entirely.

lightbulbMost clients see what’s out there and ask for that with 20% different. Or they have no idea what they want, and in order to find common ground with them, you talk to them in terms of what’s been done. At most, you’ll be able to show sketches and artwork, which is as close to blue-sky development as most projects get. But because you’re always talking in terms of what is, the chances of really pushing boundaries are slim.

Where the advances are coming from, are people working on their own, working out of universities, or people in the increasingly rare position of being at a company that allows explorations outside of billable jobs. People looking not just to the next job, but the world 10 years down the line.

And there’s the dilemma. R&D is an investment in the future every company should be making, but too often it’s seen as an expense that’s not paying itself back fast enough or at all. It’s seen as something that needs to be attached to a specific goal to be financially viable, when much of the time it *shouldn’t* be that way. As soon as you’re attaching it to a specific project to address a specific need, it’s really more problem-solving that research. It’s about the present, instead of the future.

People and companies get too comfortable with current solutions and tools and too mired in the day to day to look ahead. It starts with the loss of pure R&D and then slowly seeps into the entire culture. You “can’t afford the time for R&D” because of current job demands, but you can’t afford not to spend that time. Next you’re looking around, wondering why you are so behind the times, and soon you’re gone.

You have to not just make the time for that R&D, but keep reminding yourself why you’re doing it, and why it is crucial. As a company culture imperative, and as critical for personal development.

If you want to be prepared for the future, you have to be making it. And you have to make the time to create it.