Keeping R&D Relevant During a Global Pandemic

As keeper of the company’s medium- and long-term innovations, R&D management has the opportunity and responsibility of charting the pathway forward from the current upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged each of us individually, but also collectively through a shared sense of angst, frustration, and exhaustion.  The lines have blurred between our personal and professional lives.  On the home front, patience has become a priority as we work to protect our families and our sanity.  And, professional life now involves navigating the unknown in daily routines, classifying operating norms as either essential or non-essential, and worrying about what the future will look like once things are “back to normal”.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has left some companies struggling to serve decimated markets, other companies have responded quickly to unexpected increases in consumer demand or dramatic shifts to online channels.  Marketing organizations have conscientiously crafted new messaging.  Operations departments have kept facilities running despite major disruptions to supply chains.  Across the organization – the call to action has been about the here and now.  And yet, R&D and Innovation groups have always been tasked with caring for the future.  Accordingly, R&D management at this moment faces the challenge of how to stay relevant and forward looking in a time of immediacy and extreme turmoil.

Deploying painful layoffs and furloughs may help with short-term cash needs, but such actions do not serve the longer-term strategic needs of the enterprise.  Putting intellectual assets and technical capabilities in a deep freeze reduces (or destroys) the expected return on these important assets.  Social distancing mandates have pushed most R&D employees out of their laboratories to work remotely from home.  But the challenge remains – how to most effectively deploy these capabilities to be relevant today and be prepared to succeed in an unknown future?

For R&D, assertive decision-making and action must align with three pandemic-related imperatives:

1.  Act Now. What capabilities can we deploy today to help alleviate the pain of the current pandemic?

R&D can play a key role in considering the core capabilities of the enterprise and matching them against the immediate needs of the public health crisis.  Obvious and visible examples of moving to action are manufacturers who have shifted production to ventilators, masks, or hand sanitizers.  Less obvious opportunities can be uncovered through a careful translation of the company’s intellectual assets to a new set of requirements.  R&D is well skilled on functional thinking and technology transfer – important components for matching technical competencies with current public health needs.  Further, R&D could seek opportunities to apply its skills and capabilities to help others (partners, vendors, start-ups) succeed and bring a faster end to the pandemic.

2.  Prepare for the Return. How can we best prepare to move quickly after the crisis passes?

By any measure, the crisis will pass and a rebooting of the economy will begin.  Those companies that can emerge quickly will gain advantage.  Accordingly, R&D can play a role in accelerating the pace of re-entry by ensuring now the health and readiness of the innovation pipeline.  One means of doing so is to assign knowledge work wherever possible to employees working remotely – for example through technology scouting, due diligence, conceptual design, IP landscaping, or product roadmapping. The goal is to be prepared to move to proof of principle, hands-on work quickly upon return to the laboratory.

3.  Consider Life After the Pandemic. How will life be different once the pandemic is over and what new opportunities will emerge?

While the world eagerly awaits a return to normalcy, it is almost certain that some things will never be the same.  How, when, and where products and services are consumed in the future will be influenced by changed consumer habits (and angst) created by this pandemic.  R&D organizations can use a systematic approach to anticipate the consumer norms and behaviors of a post-pandemic world.  These norms and associated parameters of value will be the basis for how customers will make purchase decisions in the future.  For example, previously, parameters related to safety may have been taken for granted by customers (“it’s important, but I assume it’s safe”).  In the future, the same product may require that safety be featured prominently and visibly (“I need physical proof that this is safe”).  Product features like safety, convenience, or personalization in a post-pandemic world may mean something totally different from what they meant a year ago.  As a result, rethinking entirely these parameters could pay handsome benefits.  And, translating these newly characterized parameters to their functional and physical requirements will open up pathways for technology search and solution development.  Reimagining customer parameters of value will be critical for differentiating products and services in a post-pandemic future.

R&D leaders can play a vital role in responsibly navigating the current health crisis and preparing companies to be successful in the changed world that lies ahead.

Resolving Contradictions in Medical Technology

R&D professionals regularly encounter contradictory requirements as a matter of course in almost every innovation program.  Increasing the performance of one parameter is directly correlated with a decrease in performance of another important system parameter.  These contradictions can become the bane of breakthrough results if they are addressed inadequately or not at all.  Researchers often resort to optimizing the system as a useful compromise, using a highly iterative procedure.  Optimization is viewed as the means to balanced performance outcomes.

Yet, sometimes the performance compromise can relate to life-critical parameters – a scenario faced by medical device R&D scientists and engineers.  In healthcare, novel devices are expected to meet diverse and increasingly stringent requirements where dependability and performance can be life-critical.  Medical device companies use a validation plan to define process or product requirements in terms of test criteria, calibration and maintenance requirements, cleanliness requirements, particle count criteria, etc.

But what if the new product has contradictory requirements?  For example, a catheter may need high tensile strength for pressure infusion tests, but increased strength causes poor performance on mandatory flex test requirements important to guiding the device through an artery.  This contradiction – the device must be strong enough and at the same time flexible – presents a major hurdle to meeting critical validation elements.  Optimization is either not possible or would lead to a compromise with unacceptable outcomes.

Instead, contradictions can be resolved using simple tools and without compromise-based design methods.   For example, one efficient approach is to satisfy both sides of a contradiction by separating requirements in time or space and then solving for each requirement at different moments of time, or for different parts of the object, or at different sections of its non-linear characteristic.

An important step to resolving contradictions is to reframe the initial problem from the outset.  For instance, instead of trying to synthesize an optimal material for the whole catheter, a designer can specify different requirements to different sections of the device.  By listing contradictory requirements and indicating to which parts of the object / moments of time / stages of its life cycle they apply, solutions become clear and a pathway forward can be developed.  A precise and reframed problem statement is essential for developing solutions using a limited set of separation principles.

In summary, contradictions are sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden barriers that exist within most engineered systems.  Taking the time and care to unearth them, understand their nature, isolate/exaggerate specific requirements, and then solve for them – rather than optimizing against them – can spell the difference between average products and breakthrough (even life-saving) innovations.