Innovation is a critical component of any organisation’s success. However what’s often less clear is how to seamlessly implement such ideas. Large organisations have long understood the importance of innovation. But what does it take to transform an R&D (Research & Development) project into a technology solution that teams on the ground actually adopt?
To explore this question, a study conducted by three professors; Prof. Christian Stadler (professor of strategic management at the University of Warwick Business School in the U.K.), Prof. Constance E. Helfat (J. Brian Quinn professor in technology and strategy at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in the U.S.) & Prof. Gianmario Verona (professor of management and technology and the rector at Bocconi University in Italy) identifies several common hurdles, as well as three strategies that were particularly effective in encouraging adoption of new tools and systems.
1. Start with the Users
All too often, companies take a top-down approach, developing new technologies based on high-level strategic and financial considerations and then pushing those tools down to individual subsidiaries and teams. This can work, but the study found that the frontline users tasked with implementation tended to be very reluctant to follow some distant researcher’s instructions on how to do their jobs. To overcome this reluctance, they found that a bottom-up approach was often much more effective. When people are on board, they’ll embrace the challenge and do the work necessary to make the advance succeed. That’s why it’s so critical for R&D teams to start by engaging with the people who will actually use their solutions, rather than with the bosses who sign off on budgets. If the R&D team can win over a believer or two, they can test whether their new creation actually improves things in the real world. (Hint: Sometimes it doesn’t.)
2. Select the Right Early Adopters
Starting with users is only step one. To maximise their chances of success, R&D teams need to identify which users will be the most receptive to specific new technologies. This could be people who are particularly frustrated with the status quo. For example; people with some particular interest in the proposed new technology. The company this study was conducted on implemented two different programs to better connect R&D teams with the most relevant field engineers: First, the company identified engineers with both operational and research experience, and made sure to have R&D teams update those engineers on new developments relevant to their research areas. And second, the company set up R&D outposts that allowed researchers to rotate through different units, where they could both promote new technologies and better understand the field engineers’ current operational needs, in turn enabling them to adapt their pitches and solutions to fit individual teams’ needs.
3. Mitigate the Money Barrier
Finally, one of the most common reasons why teams will fail to comply is that implementation often requires both man-hours and significant capital investment. There are other creative ways to find the resources you need. Whether that’s through a grant, internal incubator, external funding, etc. Another effective approach is to bring together projects of different sizes. In this study they found that R&D teams might be eager to get a technological advance tried out in a big project, but the managers for those projects were unlikely to agree to take on so much additional risk. To address this, the R&D team would find a small project elsewhere to use as a guinea pig, and get the big project to fund the first round of implementation.
This created a win-win: The costs to the big project were relatively small, so if things went wrong, the damage was limited, while if it succeeded, the big project would have the proof of concept they needed to adopt the technology more broadly. Meanwhile, it gave the small project access to technology that would otherwise be far too pricey, meaning the managers on these teams were often more than happy to take on the additional risk. Most R&D teams aren’t in a position to fully subsidise the implementation costs for new technologies, so it’s critical to explore creative solutions like this to get the users on board.
When it comes to internal technology rollouts, R&D teams can’t take their users for granted. To gain traction internally, companies must treat these users as partners, understanding and addressing their actual needs rather than insisting they implement solutions that don’t actually work for them. That means starting from the bottom up, identifying the best potential early adopters, and addressing the challenges (financial and otherwise) that keep the people on the ground from successful implementation.