5 Habits of Highly Effective R&D Scientists

March 3, 2016 Don Bissett, Ph.D.


In my previous article, I discussed some basic values that have served me well in my career and helped me become a Victor Mills Society Fellow at Procter & Gamble. During my career I also developed more specific project habits, which proved invaluable in accelerating the development of technology.  These five habits served me well, and perhaps others will find them helpful in their technology careers.

1. Do Not Fall in Love With Your Technology.

It's easy to get excited about a new technical program, new discoveries, and all the possible applications. The trouble is that loving your technology can lead to overlooking the warts and bumps. "Yeah, it's unstable and stinks, but I'm sure we can fix it." Been there, not doing that again.

Yes, be passionate about your technology, fight for it, and promote it. But also be critical of it – be more critical than anyone else. Drill deep for the fatal flaws – think about the technology all the way through to its end use. If the path is clear, fantastic! Charge ahead. But if there are unfixable fatal flaws, don't let them fester. Abandon the technology early, before it breaks your heart. Then move ahead with Plan B.

2. Never Put All Your Eggs in One Basket.

Have a Plan B. Early in the project, identify all the options (technologies, mechanisms, strategies) and explore each of them enough to determine merit. At some point, you likely will have to focus on just one of them, but keep the others as backups (and identify more) just in case. Then if you need to tell management that Plan A died, you immediately show them Plan B.

I did just that with the stinky unstable example I mentioned above. It gave management a solid alternative to buy into. And even if A succeeds, keep B in your pocket – it just might be the next generation technology.

3. Avoid Distractions Like the Plague.

Block out distractions to focus on the project. In today's fast-paced, communications-at-your-fingertips world, it is easy to let your life be ruled by media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, personal email, web sites, etc.) and corporate non-project expectations (meetings, training, "organization building"). It can eat up your days, weeks, and months – and all of that lost time simply cannot be replaced.

Mid-way through my career, I made the conscious decision to avoid all of them like the plague – call it "eliminating low value work." It was so liberating to simply ignore it, freeing me to focus more time and energy on the project. Curiously, no one in management complained too loudly about my non-participation because technology flowed from the project.

4. Carve Out Time to Let Inspiration Happen.

Surround yourself with information on the project (technical literature, patents, raw material supplier materials), read it, and let the pieces distill in your head until (hopefully) BAM! The moment of discovery. 

I remember those moments as if they happened yesterday. In a screening program, flipping through a structure catalog and pointing at a molecule I had never seen before – THAT'S THE ONE. And it was. Standing at my desk, scanning an array of technical publications, and puzzling over how to fix a ponderous (yet critical) laboratory method – then suddenly realizing the answer was THROW IT AWAY and adapt this simpler, faster, cheaper, it-just-might-work out-of-the-box alternative. It did. For me, those moments happened because of the accumulated project-relevant technical information, which today, with the vastness of the Internet, is so ridiculously easy to get.

5. Be an Open Book.

I kept no secrets on my projects, sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly. That allowed people both inside and outside of the project to come forward with solutions to problems.

I once needed to fill a gap in methodology that ultimately came from someone I had never met before. In contrast, I saw many other colleagues (including one of my own managers) who tightly controlled everything, apparently as a way to control information, projects, people, and careers. I saw it as a way to ensure that no one could ever offer advice or assistance, because no one knew enough about the work and its issues to contribute meaningfully – it was a sure path to isolation and mediocrity.

I hope that these habits will help others with their technology projects. I have always felt that if you take care of your project, it will take care of you (and your career). It worked for me.

About Don Bissett, Ph.D.: Dr. Bissett is one of the world's top skin care experts and member of P&G's Victor Mills Society, recognizing its top technical leaders. Since retiring from P&G in 2008, he continues his skin care research, publishes, and consults through YourEncore.

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