Research is not about search but about finding


Tom Cruise in Minority Report – 2002

I had the opportunity to visit the R&D facilities of a big company, big like in 100K+ employees. I was invited to their brand new R&D site housing 1,500 researchers in brand new fully sustainable buildings (solar panels, recycles water, etc.) in the middle of nature. I was the guest of the Global Innovation Manager.

I have seen this mix/blur of innovation and R&D elsewhere and I had in my career many discussions about where innovation sits on the spectrum from pure R&D work to pure enabling unit. I have also seen several “oscillating patterns” where a company starts at the R&D end, swings to the enabling end, swings back again to the R&D end and so forth. I have written many times before on these and other oscillating patterns, that are in essence caused by structural conflict (with a big shout out here to Robert Fritz, see previous posts).

To be precise the R&D site of big company was a pure R-site. Pure research, no development. Often structural conflicts arise when R is reporting into the marketing department, which is more about the D (product Definition and product Development). The R is a different animal than the D. Or when R sits with IT and D with marketing and the structure of the company obstructs high quality flows between the two groups, instead of cultivating them.

But that was not the case at big company. Being an R-site, the site was full of R-people, most of them engineers. But the R-site of company was making use extensively of artists are part of their R-projects.

Studio/Atelier Rinus Van de Velde – picture by Joke De Wilde

This was not an “artists in residence” program where the company sponsors an artist to do their artwork. Or where business executives are invited into an artist’s studio for a one-day workshop in the mess of the artist’s working environment, hoping the creative virus would infect them.

No, this was about deeply integrating artists within the R-teams of the company. And they were doing this at scale, in collaboration with a world-renowned academy, changing artists every month, and an international art curation and selection panel.

In part this was inspired by the lateral thinking of Edward De Bono, inventor of the term “lateral thinking”.

This was indeed all about creating collisions between the creative orientation of the artists and the reactive/responsive orientation of the engineer who is looking how to best solve a problem.

In setting up these collisions, the innovation manager was in fact what I would call an “Architect of Accidents”. It suddenly hit me that research was not about searching but about finding.

The role of the R-teams was to see what they could FIND when they collided. Nobody said: “Let’s find a balloon”. The mission was “what can you find?” if you collide these elements.

This is in big contrast with what I have seen in other R&D/Innovation teams where challenges are set up to solve a particular problem (a problem in search for a solution). A whole “search”-process is then set-up to capture the ideas/solutions, plus some stage gating to further filter (read frame to the be liked by the decision makers), and the end result is that after a while everybody feels like they are fulfilling the system vs. creating what they want. No wonder the change agents get frustrated!

It reminded me of Jean Russell’s four types of inquiry, so nicely illustrated in the concentric circles of Jay Standish at OpenDoor (#gratitude):

Indeed, this was a story of continuous learning, from what is imaginable, what is possible, what is testable, and what is provable.

Research with artists at big company was about finding what is imaginable.

And different practices have different preferences. Good artists are more than just good craftsmen; they let you see/find/discover something that was always there but that you would not find without their help. They let you find what is imaginable. Most engineers can probably be mapped to the science or math circle, with a preference to test and prove things are true, can work.

And different practices have different methods. As you can see from the concentric circles second picture, the philosophy circle is more about theories of change, where as the scientists want to test the assumptions of these theories and reduce the set op options that can be proven to be true.

What the R-team at big company was doing was an effort of being open to new (or existing) insights. In that sense, learning is about letting go of ego. Finding is about being open for the unexpected, the un-searched.

In that sense, my initial spectrum from R&D to Enabling was probably the wrong framing. I tend to prefer these days the concentric circles.

To open the nut, to find the crack inside, one must integrate artists in the innovation flows, especially to help find what is imaginable.

I am in the business of cultivating high quality connections and flows to create immersive learning experiences and structural change. Check out:

Originally published at on September 2, 2017.

Thinker — Creator — Sensebreaker