December 2005

Interview with Jean Colpin

Jean Colpin is the Director of United Technologies Research Center in East Hartford, CT. UTRC is the central research organization for United Technologies Corporation, a $40 billion company whose products include Carrier heating and cooling, UTC Fire & Security systems, Hamilton Sundstrand aerospace systems and industrial products, Otis elevators and escalators, Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines, Sikorsky helicopters and UTC Power fuel cells. Jean has focused on contributing to the parent company’s growth agenda by generating innovative scientific and technical solutions. In this interview Jean provides perspective on the challenges of bridging the gap from basic research to product development. Jean can be reached at

Interview conducted by Doug Berger, Managing Partner of INNOVATE LLC.


I would like to pursue the conversation from the perspective of the evolution of our organization over the past 5 years.  We are the research center for United Technologies.  Our key mission in one sentence is to contribute to corporate growth through innovation.   We do the advanced research ahead of the business units in different segments of activities, product fields or market segments. Our research is predicated upon what the different business units are pursuing.  We are the link in the chain between the scientific world and the needs of the business units.  Either we invent here in the research center or we adopt outside technologies that we integrate into business unit products. 


Please, in your own way, speak to the evolution of the research center over the last four to five years.


First, refocusing the organization on an innovation agenda to support business growth is one of our key missions.  Continually restating that mission in a clear manner is important. 

Secondly, the world is our market, and the world is our partner from a scientific point of view.  The globalization of our research environment is an important factor.   

Next, we have evolved to a more fundamental science, deliberately getting away from or reducing the “build-and-bust” approach to R&D.  We have undertaken a significant effort in terms of modeling, simulation and analysis at the fundamental level. 

Lastly, our focus is on speed and speed to market.  When you look at different market segments such as aerospace, as compared with commercial, elevators or HVAC systems, the time to market is significantly different.  Therefore, getting a notion of speed and technology readiness that has a lot of rigor is something which is more and more important.

Doug: What was your situation four of five years ago?


I would say there are two temptations in the research world.  One temptation is blue-sky research.  You give a lot of freedom to the scientific community in your research center.  In this case, however, you are not necessarily addressing the biggest issues and problems that are being faced by the market. 

The other extreme, and we have been through both, is to focus solely on product development and troubleshooting the business unit needs.  Now you are looking only at day-to-day types of activity and you lose sight of the long term.  UTC is a manufacturing company and our business units primary focus is on getting product built and out the door.  We must focus on the long term and on the technologies that span, or could span, multiple business units.


What adjustments did you make in how you went about moving the pendulum to fundamentals?


It started with the mission of the organization.  We centered the pendulum by providing a clear plan with the short and the long-term elements.

We identify where we want to be important; where we want to have an impact; what the different segments of activities are and where we want our organization to focus. 

For example, buildings in general, represent about 30 to 40 percent of the energy consumption in our nation. There is something that could be done and needs to be done to improve that energy footprint.

Our plan must provide a sense of direction - what we are going to do next year and what is important over the next five years.  This is a long journey, not just a decision to write the plan and put it on paper.  Transformation or evolution is an ongoing process every day.  It never stops and always needs to be reinforced.  When you do that, you can then rely more and more on initiatives coming from individuals or the teams in the organization without needing a very strong top-down sort of organization.


In terms of your own leadership approach, what would you say are your guiding principles? 


First of all, I believe in people.  You need to create the context in which people will blossom.  To delegate is to provide freedom in the context of a mission that is well defined.  It’s to be able to structure a clear goal for the organization.  You have a team that essentially knows what they have to do.  You get momentum behind the people.  You want them to feel good about themselves, to take initiative and not be afraid of failures. 


What have been the few things that really worked in getting the mission to be well understood?


One of the things you need is a framework in which people will execute their responsibilities well in the context of a clearly defined mission.  Innovation does not happen by luck. It requires some process, and we have been working together with the rest of the team to try to understand how to harness the creativity of the people here.  For example, we have brainstorming sessions with focused themes.  What are the problems that need to be addressed?  What is important around us for both today and tomorrow to avoid the risk of being obsessed by the day-to-day? 

The key points here are rigor and discipline.  Sometimes, these terms seem to contradict the freedom of invention of the scientists.  We have a very rigorous process to identify and evaluate the problems we are trying to embrace.  I’m not referring to problems just in the negative sense.  There may be a new challenge or a new frontier for some technology.  Our system, for example, may need to be reinvented in a totally different way.  We are in the business of fuel cells big time and have been for the last 35 years, including that of the aerospace industry.  What new elements are there that will create the long-term business opportunities?  We think about critical needs in the future and try to focus our minds on the solution of those problem definitions we have identified. 

We evaluate the elements of a business case at an elevated level to justify spending time and energy on that problem.  Then we ask questions … were we to seriously trying to fix that problem what technologies would be involved?  We scientifically identify the things that are not available and then start the process of technology readiness required for transfer of the technology to the business unit.  This speaks to focused innovation on predefined fields of activity, big themes, rigor, and discipline in the way that we handle innovation development. 


You are working with some very high-risk scientific areas.  How have you worked with your scientists to eliminate the fear of failure?


I have focused on two areas.  The first is the ‘psychological’ state of the organization - people feeling good about being a little adventurous.  Being adventurous does not mean being careless.  It means trying things, some of which are high-risk.  Our reward is the name of our business.  If you don’t get out of the box, you will not be able to truly innovate.  The notion of failure needs to be recognized and rewarded.

Secondly, you provide a framework in which you expect failures in the early stages of the development of a technology.  You support the ones that are showing success and promises, and you quickly kill the ones that are not proving to be all that interesting.  In that context, the consequences of the failure are minimized and become part of the fabric of the way we work. 

If the failure happens late in the process, even in the context of product development in the business unit, it’s much more painful. At this stage of the game you are already committed to markets, and customers, a lot of money is being devoted to product development, and failure becomes costly.  The key is to fail early on, so that you effectively filter the good from the bad with little or no negative consequence. 

This goes back to the way people feel.  If failures are identified and eliminated early in the process, people can refocus their energy on the next positive venture.


Are there any human resource incentives that encourage those kinds of ventures regardless of their success or failure?  Are people incented any differently?

Jean: When we assess people we look at what they plan to achieve and the process they plan to use.  Somebody who, early on, identifies a risk and kills a project - who says ‘it’s not going to pan out,’ should be rewarded.  Conversely, someone who does not identify risk, only to have it show up in later stages, has to be treated differently.

What are the performance metrics that guide you at your level to know that a particular research endeavor or opportunity space is really on track? 


When you start a project, you define the market target - the problem you’re trying to solve.  This implies that you have requirements.  They may be performance requirements, efficiency and noise requirements, weight and cost requirements, a durability and life requirement, etc.  The stages and gates through which a project passes contain not only budgets, but also clear-risk reduction and requirement verification.  You measure the progress of your project by the specifications of those different gates.

You declare those gates.  You’re part of a plan.  The plan is captured in an Earned Value Management System, EVMS.  This system was well known in the military world years ago and we’ve adopted it as one of our key indicators.  You meet your milestone, you meet your deliverables and your gates, and you earn value for your program compared with what you spend against the program.


What ways do you continually re-emphasize the mission of the organization?


I do luncheon meetings with employees.  We have quarterly town hall meetings, and I constantly reiterate ... this is the direction ... this is the strategy.  I think it’s safe to say that it’s easy to underestimate how much you need to communicate, and I don’t know that it’s ever enough. 

I think it is important in our environment to identify and recognize what you do well.  In other words, what have we invented in the last six months?  What is new under our roof?  What are the new big projects that were not on the radar screen but are suddenly appearing to be very important for our future? 

Being able to share those accomplishments with people is important.  In this environment, our particular challenge is our scientists.  They tend to be very, very focused on their own work.  They can at times lose sight of the environment around them.

Providing global visibility of the innovation which the center is generating is important.  It’s not just about feeling good; it’s about feeling valued, feeling effective and having impact.  I don’t think we do that well enough.


I would imagine that must be part of your hiring and promotion criteria.


We call them competencies.  One of the competencies we look for when we interview is literally adaptability.


How have you dealt with the challenge of bringing things from research into commercialization?


We celebrated our 75th year of existence in October 2004.  I believe that says something about the role and responsibility of the research center in the context of our corporation.  Strategically speaking, our corporation values innovation and values the production of research.  Having said that, however, our continued viability is not a given.  We don’t have a grant every year that allows us to live our lives without problems, without having to fight for our existence, for our future, for our growth and for our diversification.  We need to justify ourselves by continuously delivering technological and innovative solutions.

We need to prove the point that it is important to think long-term, and that there is significant value coming out of the work that is being done here.  For example, the Otis flat belt fundamentally changed the technology of elevators in the last four or five years.  One of the key elements in the Boeing 787 used some of our unique design processes.  High-impact deliverables demonstrate to everyone the fact that you have a purpose in life and that you are useful – that innovation for the growth of the business is critical.


Do you have any concluding remarks for our readers?


I cannot stress enough the importance of globalization going forward.  You cannot, as a research community, be isolated on your own island.  You need to be open to the world.

The final element, and one that is really outside of the scope of the research center, is the need for our local communities to recognize the importance of science and technology education.  They must continue to feed our schools and our universities with high-flying scientists who will, at some point in their career, end up in a research center like this.  I want to make that point because it is up to all of us in the technical community to participate in the process of making that happen.


Velcro Points

  • To delegate is to provide freedom in the context of a mission that is well defined.
  • Put the rigor and discipline in the places where it encourages people to execute well, i.e., rigorously defining the problem you are trying to solve.
  • Make failure part of the job.  Encourage people to be adventurous.  Build the business discipline to identify and discontinue failures early.

©2005 Innovate LLC (all rights reserved)

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