Heilmeier’s “No Excuse” Technology Transfer Policy

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Great visionaries seem to be skilled at presenting their ideas and experience in a witty manner. They are also good at self-reflection. I noticed it first while reading the transcript of a famous speech by Richard Hamming, which amazed me in many ways, including with its “non-humble” style.

Therefore, when we discussed the Heilmeier Catechism, I was certain that I’d easily find a great interview, speech, or even better, writing of George H. Heilmeier, if I simply googled his name. I soon stumbled upon his Some Reflections on Innovation and Invention, published in 1993, filled with witty remarks based on a great experience. It is clear to me now that being humble is a sin if you actually did something.

Where the puck is going

Heilmeier compares successful innovators to successful hockey players, quoting Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player, as considered by many:

“I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”

Innovation is anticipating the direction of where technology is going. One needs to trust their intuition, which is the product of skill, practice, and experience. It is also crucial to have the courage to act, supported by the intuition and guidance of mentors that resonate with one’s own intuition.

Heilmeier quotes the Book of Ecclesiastes:

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

But even though time and chance constitute a good deal of innovation, they are not the whole story.

Do something different

Talking about his doctoral dissertation topic, Heilmeier mentions how after working for two years in the then-emerging field of solid-state microwave devices, he realized that the area was getting crowded in competition for new ideas. Discussing the new concept of organic semiconductors with Leon Nergaard during the early 1960s, he got advice that changed his career:

“Look, George, you may never have another opportunity to try something completely new like this again… Do something different.”

A few years later, Vladimir Zworykin, the father of television, to Heilmeier’s comment on “stumbling upon a breakthrough” in the field of organics, replied:

“Stumbled, perhaps… but to stumble one must be moving.”

Develop the business opportunity together with technology

Soon came Heilmeier’s success in the field of Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs). However, it turned out to be that the commercialization of LCDs was a tough task. Heilmeier summarized his lessons learned from the liquid crystal saga as follows:

  • Never be afraid to explore something entirely new. Treat intuition as real.
  • Don’t be deterred by judgments based on incomplete information that “it can’t be done”.
  • Do the difficult experiments first. Don’t substitute research for insight. Review older concepts periodically in light of progress made in other areas that might change earlier views.
  • Approach problems from an interdisciplinary point of view. Remove the barriers to exploiting the viewpoints of other disciplines and do not be afraid to be called naive when venturing outside your own professional discipline.
  • Have a clear view of what you are trying to do, but be prepared to modify this view in light of new information.
  • Clearly understand the limits of current approaches. Understand what is new in your approach and why you think it might succeed.
  • Understand the implications of success. Build prototypes so that others can begin to share your vision.

Heilmeier wonders what would happen if their team would be given the responsibility to develop the business opportunity together with technology.

“History seems to indicate that breakthroughs are usually the result of a small group of capable people fending off a larger group of equally capable people with a stake in the status quo.”

What is Innovation

Heilmeier argues that the concept of “innovation” is often misunderstood.

“Innovation is an idea or invention that becomes a business success.”

LCDs were an invention in the 1960s, but they became innovative only after the 1970s. Innovation and business success cannot be separated.

The “No Excuse” Technology Transfer Policy

Heilmeier then proceeds to advocate his “No Excuse” Technology Transfer Policy”, on the basis of which stands the successful “productization” of new technology. The policy has 7 basic tenets:

  • Formulate a “catechism”.
  • Recognize productization as a necessary, crucial activity. Allocate capital and personnel to productization early. Technology, however good, is not enough.
  • Identify receivers of the technology and ownership of the transfer early. Provide incentives on both sides.
  • To the maximum extent possible, use common equipment in the development laboratory and in early manufacturing.
  • Begin the transfer process immediately after demonstrating feasibility in the laboratory. Stay close to marketing.
  • Manufacturing must prove the methods developed in the laboratory before initiating efforts to improve them.
  • Keep the laboratory involved in the production and manufacturing phases through completion of product qualification and achievement of cost and performance goals.

Heilmeier then concludes:

“Don’t think that you can make [the policy] work by doing four of the seven or five of the seven [tenets]. You must do all seven. This is why failures in technology transfer occur. The road to failure is jammed with people who think they can get away with not doing the tough stuff.”

Appendix: Heilmeier’s Catechism

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the mid-term and final “exams” to check for success?

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Ismayil Shahaliyev

Ismayil Shahaliyev

International Chess Master | MS in CS & Data Analytics (ADA & GW Universities). See the full list of my articles at: http://www.shahaliyev.net/writings.html