Practices to Profoundly Improve Performance

Note: this is from a YouTube I posted under Innovation for Impact (i4i), Curt Carlson

Hi, Curt Carlson here with my value creation tip for the week.  I want to talk about a very important issue that can profoundly impact the prosperity of the United States — and the world. That is, how we can become much better at conducting interdisciplinary research, which is the source of so many important innovations.

Today’s experience shows that most interdisciplinary research, whether at companies or universities, is disappointing.  This poor performance is because basic value creation methods are often missing.  Thus, I will first describe practices that are required and then, at the end, outline how we can address issues getting in the way.

By way of example, I will focus on major university research programs, which can vary between 10 to 100 million dollars for up to 10 years and include multiple universities, research organizations, and commercial partners.  These programs generally require both basic and applied research and often expect significant commercial outcomes.  But today, the commercial results are often marginal, and, with only a few exceptions, most university technology-transfer functions lose money.

I have worked with dozens of major programs like these for the National Science Foundation, National Academy of Engineering, US National Laboratories, and the Singapore research council.  In Singapore, we reviewed their large center programs, including those from the top US universities such as MIT and Berkeley.  I have also conducted value creation workshops with more than 500 teams from other leading universities, companies, and government agencies.

The poor performance I reference doesn’t mean that the world-leading researchers involved can’t conduct excellent research.  They can, and they do. But they usually default back to their specific research areas and fail to fully address the major opportunity, which was after all, the center’s initial focus.

Before I go on, a few caveats are required.  Certainly, there are terrific researchers who understand and use versions of the methods I describe, but they’re rare.  There are also government agencies that use effective practices, such as DARPA.  But in universities, companies, and government agencies we repeatedly see how better value creation methodologies can profoundly improve performance.

Okay, with that said, the three principles, or rules, required for interdisciplinary success are:

  1. First, they must, of course, address an important unmet societal need or opportunity.
  2. Second, they must share the language and concepts of value creation with a focus on the end-user.
  3. And third, they must use a rigorous value-creation process to create the new knowledge required for addressing the unmet need or opportunity.

If these three ingredients are not in place, the results will be, at best, episodic or incremental.  More likely, the larger opportunity will not be addressed.

Next, I will go quickly through all three principles.

  • First, let’s consider the important unmet need or opportunity.

Most significant innovations are, and always have been, interdisciplinary.  Consider Thomas Edison and electrification. Today’s grand challenges, such as quantum computing, personalized medicine, or autonomous transportation, are also highly interdisciplinary.  Many basic research programs in physics are intensely interdisciplinary, such as the Large Hadron Collider project located in Geneva. But the importance of interdisciplinary work is amplified today because of the number of opportunities, the intensity of global competition, and the rapid exponential advance of many technologies.  

Interdisciplinary research starts by assembling a small team with the skills and knowledge necessary for addressing the opportunity’s key challenges.  Assembling the right team requires a great deal of hard work to create a compelling value proposition that clearly describes the unmet opportunity and the critical research areas required to address it.

The solutions for significant opportunities emerge as new knowledge is created. You can’t plan the exact outcome because you don’t know enough at the start.  Thus, researchers will be added and subtracted as the project progresses. 

  • The second rule is the imperative for shared value creation concepts and language focused on the end user.

Interdisciplinary team members come with their specific disciplines, language, concepts, and mental models.  Imagine, for example, you’re developing a new medical device.  You might have on your team biologists, chemists, mechanical engineers, and computer scientists.

To align the team’s work, they must also understand the language that describes basic value creation concepts, such as innovation, value creation, end-user value, value propositions, and sustainability models.   These are fundamental concepts.  If a team doesn’t understand them, it will be a little bit like a Tower of Babel.  That famous Biblical story is about the powerful advantage a community had by sharing a common language and then the dramatic failure that occurred when it went away.

The lack of knowledge about core value creation concepts doesn’t necessarily stop a team, but it certainly slows it down. To be productive, the team must share and understand the core concepts of value creation, focusing on the end-user. 

  • The third rule is the imperative for intense collaboration to learn and share ideas and to create new knowledge. That is, for effective team value creation. 

Most universities have review meetings every few weeks for an hour or so to discuss what the teams work.  Teammates will also, of course, often call and email each other.  In addition, the full team might gather once or twice a year so graduate students and others can give talks about their projects.  These are all excellent practices, but this level of interaction is not remotely what is required for interdisciplinary research.  If we are doing something completely new, extremely hard, and highly interdisciplinary, getting all the pieces to fit together is incredibly difficult. 

First, all the teammates must deeply understand the value proposition for the new opportunity.  This value proposition is fundamental because it sets the direction for each sub-team.  Second, each sub-team must have compelling value propositions for their parts and how they fit into the overall solution.  To improve effectively and efficiently, teammates must also regularly obtain feedback from multiple perspectives, including from teammates to gain missing knowledge and from the perspectives of end-users and funders.   We are yet to find a university with such an an intense, ongoing practice. 

Those are the three ingredients for interdisciplinary success: first, important unmet opportunities; second, shared concepts and language for value creation focused on the end-user; and three, a recurring team value creation process based on giving and taking feedback about the sub-teams’ value propositions.

As promised at the start, there is now a practical way to bring these three ingredients into play.  Previously academic researchers from multiple universities and companies did not meet often because of the high cost and time commitment needed to get together.  But now, with everyone on video teleconferencing, teams can easily collaborate, as we are doing at Northeastern University and Worcester Polytech.

At those universities, researchers first come together and hold a short workshop to understand the fundamentals of value creation.  Then, on a recurring basis, 3 to 6 teams meet for an hour every two weeks.  The researchers give 5-to-10-minute value propositions on either their current research or new proposals. 

After each presentation, other teammates are asked to note what was done well, to give suggestions for improvement, and to provide insights by adopting the perspective of end users and funders.  This feedback allows all the team members to rapidly learn and understand how each sub-team aligns with the others to address their overall important opportunity.

Over the last ten years, NSF has made major improvements in their center research programs, as outlined in a National Academy of Engineering report I was part of.  But the time and travel costs at universities limited what could be done at that time.  But with that barrier mostly eliminated, and some now proving what is possible, an important question is how much NSF’s programs could improve if it adopted these practices? 

Professor Paul Westerhoff at ASU, who has repeatedly worked in this more productive way, believes NSF and other funding agencies could improve their innovative performance two to three times.  I think it could be more.  When I was CEO at SRI International, by using these practices, we grew our research base by over 300% and systematically created one major innovation after another, such as HDTV and Siri, bought by Steve Jobs for the iPhone.

If the impact of even a fraction of NSF’s 8 billion dollar a year budget were improved by two times, it would significantly increase America’s growth, prosperity, and job creation.  In addition, it would lead to better commercialization results and produce a workforce with powerful, career-defining skills.  Value creation is the responsibility of all professionals.

It is hard to imagine any other action NSF, and other government funding agencies, could take to more substantially impact the nation’s growth and prosperity.

Once again, the three principles, or rules, for successful interdisciplinary research are: one, a focus on important unmet opportunities, two, shared concepts and language for value creation with a focus on the end-user, and three, a recurring team value creation process where the research teams give concise value propositions for their parts and then obtain constructive feedback from multiple perspectives. 

That’s it. That’s my value creation tip for the week.  I hope you use these ideas in your value creation activities.  I know they will help.

And remember, it is through value creation and innovation that we’re going to make the world a better place.

Take care. Be safe. Be well.

Bye, bye.