Staffing a Research & Development effort is harder than it looks. Here are 5 simple rules to live by.
This week I was inspired by recent conversations with some of Omni Talk’s most devoted readers. Thank you Thibault, Billy, and Andy – you guys are awesome! I dedicate this post to you.
It has been a few weeks since my last long-form post, filling you instead over that time with rhapsodic Eagle Eye Cherry covers and fictional Typewriter Company transcripts.
This week we return to the roots of Omni Talk — overly descriptive exposition.
Together we have been on an almost Alcoholics Anonymous-like retail recovery plan. We have covered six steps in the recovery plan so far:
Step 1 — Admit there is a problem (Amazon and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu)
Step 2 — Be humble, admit that the problem is hard, and ask for help (Are Retail CEOs Destined to Become Murray Hamilton?)
Step 3 — Open your mind to new horizons and disciplines (Retail’s Product Problem — Why We Need to Stop Thinking with Our Small P’s)
Step 4 — Critically assess your strengths and weaknesses (10 Signs from an Earnings Call that a Retailer is in Trouble)
Step 5 — Get out and practice riding the omnichannel bike, i.e engage in omnichnnel R&D (Did You Know Lionel Richie is a Retail Nostradamus?)
Step 6 — Align on your R&D goals and guardrails (An 8-Step Pregnancy Test to Indicate if a Retailer’s R&D is Really R&D)
Today we discuss Step 7 — Smartly Staff Your R&D Effort
When a company begins to staff its R&D teams, there are five necessary conditions to consider when hiring:
1) Curiosity — the old saying is that “curiosity killed the cat,” but if you examine the old proverb upon which this saying is based, and to which Shakespeare referenced in Much Ado about Nothing, the original saying is actually “care killed the cat,” with care in reference to “worry” or “sorrow” (thanks as always Wikipedia).
Incidentally, this same care or worry/sorrow is also what lies at the heart of the Schrodinger Cat experiment, for all of you Silicon Valley fans out there too.
The original form of the proverb suits the current state of retail so much more appropriately than the saying we have all come to know today. Right now, it is the extreme caring and worry of sustaining the old mainline, retail business model that is killing the cat — constantly tending to its needs, tweaking it incrementally, etc.
Curiosity, on the other hand, is what will set us free.
Curiosity is a skill that is tough to teach. You either have it or you don’t. The people involved in your R&D efforts have to have it. They need to be innately interested in new technologies, in interdisciplinary applications within business, and in networking and meeting new people for the sake of learning, and not for the sake of getting something in return or for the sake of political gain.
If, instead, a company hires people who are not curious, people who are happy taking direction and pushing the buttons they are told to push, then chances are that said company’s R&D efforts will stall and revert back to the mean of the soon-to-be-outdated business model to which people are already so accustomed.
2) Founder Mentalities — In addition to curiosity, R&D teams have to be staffed with people who possess a founder mentality. A founder mentality is important for two reasons:
First, R&D teams need to care deeply about their work. They have to care about their work almost as much as they care about their own children. Even though I wrote about the need for hazard pay in previous posts on R&D efforts, that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to pay R&D people more either.
On the contrary, while you should have to cover the downside if it all goes to shit, more than likely, you may even be able to pay your R&D staff less day-to-day (like a start-up) because they just love their work. Don’t be afraid to ask the question overtly either, “Would you rather work on our R&D project for X amount or some other mainline project for Y amount (assuming Y is higher)?” If they choose your project, then you are cooking with gas. If they choose, “Y,” say, “Thank you for playing” and move on.
Second, founders don’t ask for permission. They just do. Startup founders aren’t out surveying and asking their competition, “Are you ok if I start doing this in my company?” The mere thought of it is ridiculous.
But think about it. This is actually how corporate bureaucracies are set up to function. It is absolutely ludicrous. Project leaders are expected to go to key people in their organizations and ask for “sign off” on their work. When in the real world does this happen? It doesn’t. It is cray-cray.
R&D efforts have to be like a start-up. Clear governance rules have to be in place, with as minimum an amount of formal oversight as possible, and projects have to be led by founders who understand their reason for being and who refuse to check their work over with the alphabet soup of corporate suits whose mainline businesses they have been charged to disrupt in the first place.
3) The “Bounce” — R&D projects are more likely to fail than they are to succeed. People on R&D teams have to be comfortable with this fact. They have to be comfortable pushing the boundaries of the possible even if it means an Icarus-like fall back down to Earth. It is a required mentality.
Often times you hear business leaders at conferences say, “We are successful because we celebrate failure.” Horseshit. It is more nuanced than that. Any schmo can celebrate failure. And, who knew horseshit is one word? Seriously, I looked it up.
But I digress. We have to celebrate the mentaility that follows the act of failing, not the act itself. We should celebrate if and only if we see people fail and then see those same people pick themselves right up off the ground and iterate on their failures immediately, in a way that mirrors a drug addiction. We need to celebrate people that react to failure like it is a dopamine hit or a heroine injection that leaves them jonesing to iterate on their work even faster, rather than wallowing in despair about where they made mistakes or worrying about other people’s perceptions of them.
It is a super crappy movie, but Bounce with Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow (when they were dating) is all about this. You should check it out. I haven’t seen it in a while, but I think there is even a scene where they cry in the shower together.
4) Learning Agility — The Bounce drug effect, if left unchecked though, can be dangerous. That is why you also have to screen for learning agility. If you don’t screen for learning agility, you could wind up with some completely too far out of left field ideas, like selling ice to Eskimos.
Noted executive coach Kevin Cashman once told me, “Learning agility is the ability to succeed in first order conditions.” I have never forgotten this advice. Why? Because it is 100% correct, and, more importantly, it is easy to screen on a resume.
As you staff R&D teams, look consciously at who, within their track records, have succeeded when they have had a brand new task to tackle, with little or no previous experience. R&D is designed to tread new ground, so you need people with the ability to process information quickly, to iterate, and to find ways to succeed without ever having a roadmap in hand.
Ask in screenings — are the candidates in front of us here because they drafted off the success of others or because of the success of the underlying businesses they were in? Or have they been successful by virtue of their own efforts? If it is not a yes to the latter question, do not hire them.
5) Beware the Foreign Exchange Student — when staffing R&D, it can be easy to swoon over the foreign exchange student. The foreign exchange student is someone on the surface who looks like a super cool outsider, but once you get to know him or her better, you realize he or she is not at all what you first thought.
It’s like in school. After a long summer break, along comes some strapping dude from a foreign country with an accent you and your classmates have never heard up close before. He dresses to the nines, straight out of central casting. He coyly plays up the language barrier to his benefit (oh, he is so sensitive!), and then pretty quickly every girl on campus is swooning over the new mysterioso about whom they really know nothing. Think Hank Azaria in Along Came Polly.
Flash forward two months later, and this same dude is sent packing because he turns out not to be sensitive at all, and instead he gets caught doing things he shouldn’t in the stairwell. True story.
Not to be flippant in any way, but it is the same with innovation efforts. Companies will scour places in Silicon Valley, like Facebook, Google, etc. — places that have a reputation for being innovative just by virtue of being tech companies — and try to find the person that looks the part. Hoodies, tattoos, piercings, and hair dye all get evaluated as positives during the screening process. So too does the volume of “tech speak.” Companies will sometimes even move candidates forward in their screening processes just by virtue of how many “tech” words they do not understand that get spouted off. The more the better in their minds.
Oh mi amor!
Is this any different from the exchange student example above? Silicon Valley equals foreign country. Accent equals tech speak. Dress or strapping body equals looks. It is all the same!
Don’t be fooled! Screen candidates for what you need, not for what they look like or sound like. Just because you came from a tech company, especially if that company’s business model has pretty much been unchallenged (cough . . . Google), doesn’t make you innovative. Look instead for candidates internally and at companies across all industries that have reinvented themselves when their business models came under siege too. Look to the good guys that have the proven track record. Hoodies and tatoos are fine — lord knows, I wear a hoodie almost every other day — just don’t make them part of the selection criteria.
Finally, in closing, you may have noticed one thing. Experience is distinctly left of the list above. On purpose.
Did Jeff Bezos have experience when he started Amazon? Did Reed Hastings? Did Niraj Shah? Experience helps but it isn’t required.
The above elements are required. If you don’t have the above deeply rooted within your HR screening, you could be in trouble. You could wind up in bed with style over substance.
But damn Hank Azaria does look good in that thong.
Be careful out there,
P.S. Another great daily news briefing, that is also pretty hilarious, is The Hustle. I highly recommend subscribing to it and checking it out.
P.P.S. This week I finished Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. My 62nd book on Entertainment Weekly’s Top 100 Novels of All-Time. It was a big 5 out of 5 stars for me. It was fantastic. Very relevant to today as well. You can see it, along with my ratings of all the books I have read so far here.
P.P.P.S. Please help me to continue to get the word out about Omni Talk. In addition to liking, sharing, retweeting, and talking about all of the great insight around your dinner tables, please, if you have the time, help me to run a grassroots campaign to get published on RetailDive by clicking on the below link and submitting your favorite post thus far.
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You should read this great article on Omnitalk.blog: Amazon and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu
You should read this great article on Omnitalk.blog: Are Retail CEOs Destined to Become Murray Hamilton?
You should read this great article on Omnitalk.blog: Retail’s Product Problem — Why We Need to Stop Thinking with Our Small P’s
You should read this great article on Omnitalk.blog: 10 Signs from an Earnings Call that a Retailer is in Trouble
You should read this great article on Omnitalk.blog: An 8-Step Pregnancy Test to Indicate if a Retailer’s R&D is Really R&D
Chris Walton is an accomplished Senior Executive with nearly 20 years of success within the retail and retail technology industries. He is well-versed in merchandising, store operations, inventory management, product design, forecasting, e-commerce, pricing and promotions, and tech product development.
Chris was most recently a Vice President with Target, where he led the retailer’s Store of the Future project and also ran the Target’s home furnishing division for e-commerce. He previously worked for GAP, Inc., as a Distribution Analyst and Manager.
Chris holds a BA in Economics and History from Stanford University, and a MBA from Harvard Business School.
He likes to dress as Darth Vader for Halloween, and his wife also frequently asks him to ask Alexa, "to turn off the music."