By Brett Malone, Ph.D., President & CEO Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center
Not every research project succeeds. And not every company survives. However, the ones that align with the culture of winning and sign up and adopt the community charter are opting in for a much higher chance of disrupting their industry and changing the rules of the game.
So, you are probably thinking it’s not important, right?
But it is… At the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, we have the unique ability to witness effective project teams daily. With over 200 companies creating breakthroughs from nanomaterials to self-driving vehicles, we have a ready-made ‘team laboratory’ to understand what works and how to scale.
What we’ve observed is a consistent theme that cuts across technologies and companies. A version of “research community charter” keeps talent focused in meaningful ways and drives the culture.
We’ve seen there are three keys to this successful culture of winning. Removing barriers, seeing the unseen, and creating speed.
Barriers exist everywhere. The trick within the culture is getting your team to trust that if they focus on the road ahead, and not the speed bump under their feet, they will move forward. Navigating with purpose, just like riding a bike, means keeping eyes out ahead. Not everyone in the culture will have this skill, but almost every effective project team has one or two leaders who can help keep the vision downrange.
In 2016, CELLINK’s vision enabled them to introduce the world’s first bioink, a biomaterial invention eight years (the barrier) in the making. Their journey has enabled them (the team) to become the world’s leading bioprinting company with systems used to optimize cell-based applications for more than 1,000 scientists across more than 55 countries.
As part of this trust in the road ahead, the team must see the unseen. Again, usually one or two spirited thinkers will own the concept and help the rest of the team see the opportunity. The unseen is the opportunity – and most entrepreneurs and researchers overthink this part. Subtle, obvious, and simple are the hallmarks of the unseen. Much like an elegant piece of code, an artfully crafted assay or a new concept, the unseen is obvious when revealed. I think of VPT and how it began as a casual conversation between two people (the spirited thinkers). Because they saw the unseen and were able to articulate the vision, they are now a global leader in providing power conversion solutions for use in avionics, military, space and industrial applications.
Finally, speed creates time to rework, refine and optimize. A culture that prioritizes speed over the risk of initial failure will have the time to iterate. Move quickly, adopt agility in the culture around all roles and evaluate rapidly. Importantly, this concept does not just apply to the heavy science side of things. Project management, finance and marketing all need to learn how to create MVP versions of their deliverables. (MVP of a project plan, for example).
In 2005, a group of Virginia Tech student engineers designed and built three autonomous vehicles to compete in the AUVSI Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition. Today, Torc Robotics has grown and is now a member of the Daimler Trucks family, offering a complete self-driving vehicle software and integration solution with a focus on developing self-driving trucks.
The community glues these concepts together and reinforces the culture so that any team, in any company, can operate among these rules.
Companies across the spectrum, from software to materials sciences, have adopted a similar culture of trust, unseen, and speed. Researchers, engineers, and project managers can smoothly move around in our community and be effective contributors because our culture is so prominent.
So how can you create this community? Start with championing research project level rules (barrier-free vision, unseen opportunity, and speed with purpose). Most importantly, however, is to adopt these rules as if they were the community charter.
From small teams to large multi-national projects, nothing will propel you faster than a culture of winning and a community of leaders.