Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing

That’s a quote from Wernher von Braun, and one of my favourites. This post was, yet again, triggered by one in Accidental Light, about choosing the least wrong. [And yet again, Malc, I should be co-commenting, I know, and I will be, soon. When I install it]

Investment in R&D is something very few people seem to get right. Yes, you get all the usual pap about people being our most important resource, and intellectual capital being highly valued, and and and. And then, every time the going gets tough, training budgets get trashed, graduate entry programmes go into black holes, and attending conferences is an absolute no-no. I’ve worked for large corporations most of my life, with many intelligent and talented people, and always wondered why this was so. Fossilfools again.

And it’s not as if this was ancient history. I sense there are people the world over who want Google to fail. Not because they’re young. Not because they’re smart. But because the 20% skunkworks that Google admit to doing openly is far too dangerous, too offensive to the current world organisation order. “Decent people don’t spend time doing “stuff”, where would the world be if we allowed that to continue?” And all that jazz.

We know how to deal with risk. But not with uncertainty.

Getting back to the point Malc makes in his “non-axiomatic” post. There was a guy called (Howard?) Schneiderman who ran R&D at Monsanto in the 1980s, who said something along the lines of:

When a board turns down a request for R&D funding, they’re right 90% of the time. Since this is a higher degree of accuracy than they achieve in any other class of decision, they feel good. But. And it is a big but. The 10% they get wrong? They lose the company.

So, while it is good to be less wrong in cases where being right is difficult, we need to be careful. It doesn’t work for some classes of decision. Particularly R&D.


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