Occupational Hazards

By Jim Euchner, VP of Global Innovation, Goodyear, and RTM Editor-in-Chief

A career in R&D is an interesting one. It offers the opportunity for continuous learning, the chance to work with interesting people, and the satisfaction of creating something new. Yet there are occupational hazards, as I am reminded each year during annual review season. Basically, I’ve learned, you can’t count on being rewarded for your contributions within an appraisal year—despite the almost Herculean efforts on the part of most of those in management to assure that rewards do match performance. Then, every once in a while, sometimes when you least expect it, the rewards do come.

I call this phenomenon the “vending machine theory of rewards and recognition.” Here’s the analogy: everyone has been robbed by a vending machine at some point: an item hangs, the machine takes your money without registering it, or you are delivered a product you did not order. Every so often, however, the malfunction runs in your favor—you get two products for the price of one or change that you aren’t actually due. Somehow, it tends to even out in the long run.

Recognition for R&D work is like that. Sometimes you make a contribution whose time just hasn’t come yet: perhaps the hard problem is solved, but the technology has not yet been proven in practice; perhaps the breakthrough has been overlooked (for now), only to be rediscovered six or eight years down the road (when you are deeply into a new role).

At other times, through a confluence of events, a contribution you make gets recognition beyond its just deserts. A patent that happens to be issued in the same year a related product is released wins “patent of the year.” Or an innovation gets picked up in the press, accompanied by profiles of its inventors. It is important to keep your head in these circumstances. Remember: the machine is just paying you back.

There seem to be a half dozen underlying reasons for this phenomenon, and I don’t think any of them are under our control. Here is my summary of them:

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