Scientific Development, Projects, & Innovation

A good traveler has no fixed plans

and is not intent upon arriving

Lau Tzu

This quote from the Tao Te Ching, summarizes why scientific development is incompatible with most organizations’ processes.

In a traditional project, we specify what success looks like before we start. Our process of discovery is (mistakenly) believed to take place at the beginning. All later activities (many people think) are merely making a reality of the intelligence applied at the onset.

This can end in great achievements. However, with our fixed goal, decisions difficult to change, and immutable timeline, our opportunities for the learning & growth that come from experimentation & adaptation are few.

A good artist lets his intuition

Lead him wherever it wants.

Lao Tzu

The assumption in a traditional process is that the ideas we had at he onset were correct. This is critical for how most projects are run, as each time we set aside an idea we must set aside the corresponding timeline that was built atop it.

In scientific development, we discard fixed timelines and most initial research. This is because we value a process that fosters learning and innovation over plans and deadlines.

We recognize that those doing the work are those best suited to develop the ideas to be tested. We also recognize that as they learn, they need the flexibility to set aside discredited ideas and pursue new ones. We must trust that the process of scientific development coupled with the judgment and intuition of our people will lead us to a place that is better than we thought possible at the beginning.

Like with Lao Tzu’s artist, we must let our intuition lead if we are to discover and innovate.

A good scientist has freed himself of concepts

and keeps his mind open to what is.

Lau Tzu

In scientific development, the project launch process is simplified. Vetting opportunities is still something a central PMO (or similar) may do. R&D may go so far as building the issue tree, but that is all. The hypotheses and questions will be left for those designing and doing the experiments.

In this way, the doers avoid being burdened by any of the ideas swarming project initiation. They can remain focused on what they know and what they learn. That is, they remain focused in what is, and not in what others thought might be.

On that topic, we must discard an additional attribute that is attached to most projects; ROI.


ROI is impossible to calculate if we don’t know how long it will take, what the solution will be, or what resources will be consumed along the way. Projected ROI is not what is. It is a number rooted in concepts we have not proven.

What metric may be used instead? The most sensible would be the potential value we see in the opportunity (not how much we can obtain, just how much there is). By always pursuing the opportunity with the greatest potential, we will be fostering institutional learning (via scientific development) in that area. That is perhaps the greatest investment we can make; having our team deliberately learn and experiment in the area of greatest opportunity.

In scientific development, we deliberately don’t decide where we’re going. This gives us the freedom to change direction whenever our learning says we should, without being encumbered by the ideas of the past.

By now you may be wondering what any of this has to do with innovation and what it means for you as a leader. Fortunately, these questions have the same answer.

It turns out that scientific development offers a great starting point for how to operate an innovation based team. Using scientific development over traditional processes will get you many of he attributes that research says are required for such a team.

Scientific development gets us:

  • Experimentation
  • Looking for the next horizon

It also goes a long way toward:

  • Central mission + loose structure

For that attribute of innovative teams, scientific development can form the basis for how teams operate in a way that helps them avoid dead ends, discover solutions, and keep moving. As to finding the central mission, if you don’t know it,¬†start with why.

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