Wynne Lewis: It’s crucial to invest in R&D even when times are hard
INVESTING in research and development (R&D) is not something you can turn on and off to meet short-term financial objectives, whatever the temptation, particularly during periods of financial uncertainty.
The economy will inevitably turn again at some stage, as it always does, and it will be companies that have stuck to their convictions during the difficult times that stand to benefit from the ensuing uplift.
They will be the ones with new products to launch into resurgent markets and those sales will, in turn, fund the ongoing cycle of R&D.
A sound financial base and strong leadership is essential, as is nurturing a culture of innovation in which ideas can thrive.
However, this requires a certain leap of faith to invest sustainably in R&D, hire good people and give them the freedom to get the job done.
Our scientists love having a problem to solve and have access to a huge box of tricks in the form of numerous and varied technology platforms. Art Fry is one such example.
In the 1970s the scientist worked with a colleague, Spencer Silver, to formulate an adhesive that could be used to make a bookmark that wouldn’t fall out of his hymn book.
This led to the development of the iconic brand, the Post-it note.
In most organisations, employees using company time and resources to work on a personal project would face disciplinary action.
However, we operate what is known as “the 15 per cent rule”, where scientific and technical employees are able to use 15 per cent of their time to work on projects not formally sponsored by the company.
This is, effectively, failure time. If you follow only sure-fire successes, you’ll end up with exactly the same products as everyone else.
Decades of experience have shown that the many successes achieved through this approach far outweigh the cost of the failures that are an inherent part of the creative process.
Giving people the freedom to fail requires both a steely nerve and long-term commitment, but for those companies who take that leap of faith, the rewards are substantial. • Wynne Lewis is technical director, 3M United Kingdom plc.
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