Keys to a Successful R&D Program

We do a lot of work with research and development (R&D) programs in the Federal Government. This kind of R&D can be crucial for spurring real innovation. Over the years we’ve seen well run and not so well run programs. In the current climate of shrinking resources and budgets, it’s essential that programs learn to operate more effectively. The question we asked ourselves is what is different about those well run programs. Are the people smarter? Do they fund better projects? Are they just lucky? In our experience there are 5 key steps that set successful programs apart.

1. Set goals and principles: In a time of tight budgets, it’s tempting to feel like spending a lot of time on set up is a waste. Who wants a plan? What you really want is the result. However, we’ve found that the programs that succeed spend more time up front thinking about what the vision for the program is and laying out clear goals. That allows you to do step 2 much more easily.

2. Establish a stakeholder input process: Every successful program centers on this step. The community of players around the focus area you are trying to change needs to be at the center of your program. Often that involves industry, some associations, academia, and representatives of the people on the ground who might use the results of any innovations your program comes up with. This isn’t a “if you build it, they will come situation.” If you build it without them, your stakeholders will watch from afar and let your program slowly fade into irrelevance.

3. Vet R&D concepts with criteria: Prioritizing what you are funding can be the hardest part of many programs. Different stakeholders might have different criteria. Some value more near term results. Some value high impact but high-risk projects. Some want to emphasize funding core issues that impact multiple areas rather than narrower or niche projects. So ask the tough questions about this up front in partnership with your stakeholders. Don’t wait until the last step to do this.

4. Refine prioritized concepts into discrete initiatives. After you prioritize, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. What are the specific projects you are funding? What kind of milestones and timelines should they have?

5. Fund and Implement. Now it’s time for the fun part but there are a couple of considerations to keep in mind as you move forward. Make sure to set up some sort of regular check on the progress of the projects against milestones. It could be quarterly, semi-annually, or annually depending on the type of project. Take advantage of these check-ins as a chance to communicate the progress and any learnings that you are seeing back out to stakeholders. That keeps the momentum going and keeps your community engaged.

Now it’s your turn. What lessons have you learned from successful and not so successful government R&D programs?