Quote of the Day
He who is not every day conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
I saw an interesting discussion on the Dynamic Ecology web site about publishing research papers. As I read the article, I saw that analogies could be drawn between doing research and developing new products. The Dynamic Ecology post was centered on observations made by William Shockley , 1956 Physics Nobel Prize winner, on what makes a successful researcher.
I should point out that while Shockley was a first-class physicist, he was a terribly flawed human being. I first saw him on television while studying late one night while at university. He was on the Tomorrow television program debating a representative of the NAACP on race and eugenics – Shockley should have stuck to physics. If you want to hear him "go off the rails" in a debate, see this Youtube video.
Hurdles to a Successful Research Paper
Shockley proposed a Figure of Merit (FOM) for predicting the likelihood of a scientist producing good research papers based on the product of scores for some key characteristics. While not rigorous, empirical formulas like Shockley's are very common. Their main value is in stimulating discussion on the factors critical to a particular problem. The most famous is probably the Drake Equation, which certainly has stimulated lots of discussion on exoplanets. Another common one is the Taylor KO Factor, which is used by hunters.
The critical factors identified by Shockley, each of which are are graded on a scale from 0 to 1, are:
- Ability to think of a good problem
- Ability to work on it
- Ability to recognize a worthwhile result
- Ability to make a decision as to when to stop and write up the results
- Ability to write adequately
- Ability to profit constructively from criticism
- Determination to submit the paper to a journal
- Persistence in making changes (if necessary as a result of journal action).
Hurdles to a Successful Product Development
Following Shockley's lead, I would propose that a similar FOM could be developed to assess the likelihood of an engineering organization to produce successful product designs. My FOM would form the product of the scores for the following characteristics (each score with a range from 0 to 1):
- Ability to perform the market research needed to identify a product that meets a market need.
I would argue that most product failures are due to poor market research. Market research shows you what the customers value and how much they are willing to pay for the value your product will provide.
- Ability to focus resources to work on the product
There is a minimum level of staffing that you need to complete a product in a timely fashion. Also, some developments require highly specialized skills – you need specific individuals.
- Ability to identify the key contribution of this product to the market
You must make sure the product fills a need in the marketplace. I have seen product developments that did not have a clear vision of their contribution to the market, and these developments tend to produce products with poor market acceptance.
- Ability to come to a consensus on the minimum viable version of the product
You have to know when to stop adding features and ship the product – I have seen developments that tried to do too much. We sometimes refer to this as "trying to boil the ocean." In the electronics world, products have a vary narrow time window in which they can enter a market and make a significant contribution. Your competitors are always nipping at your heels.
- Ability to execute the product design
Product development teams need to focus on being able to develop competitively priced, reliable products on a predictable schedule.
- Ability to obtain effective reviews of your product during development
Product development is a complex process and you never get everything right for your early prototypes. You must get effective review, both internal and external, to ensure that you have met the market need. This is harder than you might think. I have found it more and more difficult over time to get people to seriously evaluate a product when it is put in front of them – I think most people are too busy or too distracted.
- Determination to get early customer feedback on your product.
You must select beta customers that will thoroughly vet your implementation and help you identify what you have missed.
- Persistence in resolving every issue identified during development, test, and early market evaluations.
Every single issue must be resolved. The gods of electronics usually give you hints of future problems during development, but only hints. These hints can foretell of enormous problems after general release. You must find the root cause for every issue – even the little ones.
As far as Shockley's formula, I have come to believe that all forms of creative activity are far more alike than they are different. I hope I have shown that the same is true for product development and scientific research.