#46 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 7          July 1993

No Commitment?  No R&D Success
by Frank Wagner, Ph.D.

Dr. Wagner, an expert in organizational behavior, is a founding partner of Prism Ltd., in Portland, Oregon.  He has published The Power of Total Commitment (Praxis Press, Lake Oswego, OR, 1991).

R&D managers will always tell you they are committed to innovation, but are they really?  At first this question seems ridiculous.  Obviously, they’ve spent years in jobs requiring creative leaps to allow their companies to compete in a changing world.  If they hadn’t succeeded, they wouldn’t be R&D managers.  Ergo, they must be committed.

So why is this not a ridiculous question?  Basically, because commitment is little understood.  Almost everyone can recognize it, yet few can explain it in behavioral terms.  One reason commitment is hard to explain is that it is composed of two interrelated components: improvement and support.

Never Stop Improving

There is a story about Professor Porsche, whose company produces great sports cars.  One day, as he led a group of dignitaries through one of his plants, he was asked which, of all the famous cars on display, was his favorite.  His answer displayed a deep understanding of commitment.  He responded with: “I haven't built it yet.”  Commitment does not rest on yesterday’s success.  Instead it “raises the bar” to new heights.

How well are you and your R&D organization living this principle of commitment?  Is the rate, and quality, of innovation improving each year? 

To be committed to something means being dedicated to its improvement.  If you are committed to your marriage, you will work to make it better.  If you are committed to your organization, you will dedicate yourself to making it a better organization.  If you are committed to research, you will try to do better research. 

Does your behavior demonstrate commitment?  Truly committed managers work diligently to improve the success rate of innovation in their organization. Such managers actively learn from anyone who might provide valuable insight.  For example, someone trained in “quality” might have useful knowledge for the R&D function.  Management can also challenge themselves, their researchers, and their senior management to improve their “innovation” success rate.

Committed action closely parallels the process of innovation.  Any innovation calls for some new type of action:  looking for a better way, learning from others, challenging current expectations, or taking risks to make changes.  Committed people also have an active curiosity, a passion for learning, a willingness to challenge the status quo, and an eagerness to experiment with new methods and strategies.  Working in an R&D organization provides many opportunities to practice this kind of commitment.

A manager who is committed to innovation must be careful not to come across as “good is never good enough.”  Most people tire and quit a race with no clear finish line.  What is needed is a sense of a finish line.  This is supplied through actions dedicated to support.

The Importance of Support

Support is distinct from improvement.  Supporting behaviors include focusing on what is important, leading by example, and rewarding success—as well as managing disrespect and building respect.  This aspect of commitment fixes on today, not tomorrow. 

Personal example is the crucible of commitment.  Talk does not count for much.  No matter how eloquently you philosophize about your commitment to innovation, what you do about innovation is what counts.

To show support for innovation requires focus.  A manager’s commitment to R&D may be demonstrated by focusing on influencing higher management for a bigger budget, more employees, or fewer visiting dignitaries.  It may mean devoting the time to ensuring more critical thinking, or more expansive thinking, early in a project.

Supporting your commitments extends beyond yourself to helping others act appropriately.  It is well known that what gets rewarded is what gets done.  A classic article written many years ago summed this up, “The folly of hoping for A while rewarding B.”  What gets rewarded in your organization?  Are they the right things?  The closer you tie rewards to researchers’ innovative behavior, the more they will recognize that you are committed to innovation.

Like any long journey, commitment to constant improvement requires periods of rest and nourishment.  People need to pause and celebrate their successes.

Managers who show support through focus, personal example, and effective rewards, can still destroy commitment in their organization by permitting disrespectful behavior.  Though you may value a particular commitment, others may destroy it by cynicism, complacency, apathy, or some other form of contrariness. 

A committed R&D manager must also “light a fire” under the apathetic.  Buck Rodgers, who ran world-wide marketing for IBM during its best years, said he didn’t care to associate with the apathetic.  He was fond of saying, “The most insidious disease in business is complacency.  I call it psychosclerosis:  a hardening of the attitudes.”

Commitment is one of your most important assets, and only by understanding commitment can you nurture it.  Unfortunately, many people who feel their commitment is misunderstood fail to grasp that other people are judging their actions, not their attitudes and beliefs. 

Are You Committed?

If you are dissatisfied with the level of commitment to R&D, ask yourself these questions:

Are we focusing on what's important? 

What example are we, as management, setting?  

Who is being rewarded for what? 

How are we building respect (or managing disrespect)? 

How are we looking for a better way? 

Who are we learning from? 

What expectations are being challenged? 

How are we doing in regard to taking risks?

If you are questioning your organization's commitment, the first place to look is inward.  Are you committed?  Are you acting creatively?  Are you improving?  Are you a better R&D manager this year than you were last year?  Will you be a better manager next year? 

If you are truly committed to yourself, the answer to the last five questions is Yes!


How to Get It

Commitment requires balancing two behaviors—supporting and improving.

            SUPPORTING                                       IMPROVING

  Focus on what's important                                 Look for a better way

  Lead by example                                              Learn from others

  Reward success                                               Challenge current expectations

  Manage disrespect                                           Risk making changes

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©2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.