Posted by: Chris | 01/02/2010

Doing the Right Things vs Doing the Things Right

Time flies. I realize it has been already two months since my last blog posting. This is what the change of the years bring with it – no time to blog for fun – all the time spent on measuring and setting new goals.

In late November and December we spend significant amounts of time documenting what we did during the year, both at the individual and at the project level. This input is then used to assess how we performed against our objectives and milestones.

While I think that these assessments are important to determine the significance of projects and individual contributions, I wish we could do it a little simpler. When I was in sales, it was quite simple – how much did I sell at what profit and how happy was the client with IBM.

Now in Research, there are so many more criteria of what determines success.

At the start of a project it may be, did we get sufficient funding and support, did we find partners to work with us, is it a sufficiently challenging new idea, would it be a radical breakthrough if we solved it? In the middle of the project, did we reach the milestones we had defined, were they ambitious enough.? Did we publish at good conferences, in good journals? Did we file disclosures for patents? At the end of the project, did we transfer the technology/insights to an IBM organization or license it out to a partner? Did we deliver to the client what they had expected? Did we change the course of the (our) world?

We have so many criteria of what defines success that one of our skills as research managers is to choose the right ones at the right time, so we work on the right things rather than only doing the work right.

For the scientists that read this blog, how do you measure success at the end of the year?



  1. Hello
    I’m a phd candidate who is studying CS, especially DBMS.
    In my opinion, the measurement of research should not be just the number of papers or quality of journals or conferences where those papers are accepted. Those criteria can be useful to measure the success of that research. But, I think we also need to consider how practical that research is. We can get various useful opinions on practicality from lower level workers not peer researchers.

  2. Having just “graduated” after a decade with another major corporate research lab, I can say with conviction that the *true* measure of a scientist must be their success in growing communities around their novel ideas. If you can look back over a period of time and say that you have engaged in useful discourse about your ideas, and in so doing have moved those ideas forward — in your mind and in the minds of others — then you have been successful.

    Publications, grad students and dollar signs are all artifacts of having grown such communities. Pursued as ends unto themselves, it is not a given that a community will grow. But if your focus is on fostering communities around your ideas, then these artifacts will by necessity follow…

    • I’ve written an expanded view of my comment entitled, “Community as a Measure of Research Success” Thanks for the inspiration, Matthias!

  3. John, thanks for picking up that discussion. I agree that building communities is an extremely good indicator of relevance,

  4. The story of Intel comes to my mind. Their “ingredient branding” made them quite successful. However it was far more effective when most of their consumers were technical people. Now IT consumers do not have a deep understanding of “the ingredients” of their devices. Companies like Apple do a better job with the ingredient factor because they link their brand to some aesthetics factors that everyone loves and understand.

    Going back to Intel, now they are facing a world going embedded, and they are trying with their Atom processor. It seems that a little company, ARM, is giving them a hard time. What is different this time compared to when they dealt with Via, Cyprix, AMD? It is ARM model based on intellectual property, companies can own their processors. One of the golden rules of any business person is being aware of the reliance of its products in a single supplier. I believe that is the reason the embedded market favors ARM model. Intel would like to be the single supplier. According Microsoft, any computer without their product should be considered illegal. Apple is hurting a lot its developers (read

    In my opinion, companies like ARM will have a better image because “apparently” they do not try to gain control of the market. Their research and efforts provides a value to many other companies. It is normal for big companies focused on one single sector to a gain enemies. The good thing of IBM is the broad range of services and research. It is easier to like companies that are not trying to overtake or dominate a whole sector of the industry.

  5. My opinion more from engineering perspective, but I think it’s applicable to research too.
    Looking back at project that we did, I can say that one of the measurements would be the amount and potential of “building blocks” that was created during project.
    Even if project failed to achieve its goal and the end result wasn’t the one that researchers or client expected. Many other smaller, but still useful “blocks” (particular knowledge or experience, system design, source code and etc.), were created during it, which might not be created otherwise. Just taking these blocks and using them to speed up other projects or create completely new products, that won’t be possible to create without them, is what can turn one failed project into success of another one.
    So when I look back at what we achieved during last year, I take into account the amount of new products and services that can be build using such small “building blocks” accumulated by past projects.

  6. […] We all know that what one should really care about is doing the right things rather than doing things right. […]

  7. In fact, just doing a mental inventory of all the things in your life you have to be grateful
    for will help you feel better about the one or several things you are down about.

    Try breaking out of your comfort zone and join an activity( walking group, running, badminton, mountain biking,
    etc. – Once you have made the decision to end it, there may be moments when you’re tempted to
    change your mind and go back on it.

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