Satisficing: A Behavior That Drives Corporate R&D

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Satisficing is a term I never heard of as a graduate researcher, but have since learned that it drives many behaviors in industry.  This term, a combination of “satisfy” and “suffice”, was introduced by Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon in 1956 and is a decision making strategy that involves searching through available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met.  Business managers who seem to make decisions based on limited or incomplete information instead of taking the time to understand all available facts and data are often satisficing.   These managers have an acceptability threshold in mind and they’re off and running once they have enough data to meet that threshold. Their decisions will usually turn out okay as long as the acceptability threshold was accurate and they were made aware of key risks before making the decision.

Researchers are inclined to seek truth and perfection. They spend long hours in the lab and library and rarely settle for “good enough”. Business managers, on the other hand, subscribe to the theory that “perfect is the enemy of good” and as soon as a product or service is good enough to make money, they accept its imperfections and sell it. Apple is on its 6th generation iPhone and each version has had its issues, but Apple has made a lot of money along the way.

As a technical contributor in a R&D company there are times when it is appropriate to satisfice. As a rule of thumb, you satisfice more the further downstream you are in the R&D process, i.e., closer to the point of delivery to a customer. If you separate R&D into three main activities: research, development, and validation, then research is the most upstream and validation is the most downstream. Industrial researchers spend their time on core technology development, have less-strict deadlines, and more freedom to strive for perfection. They hand off these technologies to developers who implement them into products and services that can be sold to customers.  Developers have some freedom to be creative, but are held more accountable for hitting milestones and deadlines by project managers who drive them to move onto their next assigned task when the current one is “good enough”. The validators are closest to the point of delivery to the customer and are responsible for verifying that the product or service meets the minimum requirements to be sold. This job is the most black and white and has the least room for creativity.

In the context of the definition of satisficing:

Researchers spend most of their time developing alternatives, Developers spend most of their time choosing and implementing one of the alternatives, and Validators spend most of their time verifying that the implementation meets the acceptability threshold.

The tendency of corporations to satisfice has 3 implications for early-career scientists:

1. Choose the right path. If you value creativity and independence, quality control may not be the right role for you.

2. Interview the right way. If you’re interviewing for a general role in R&D, be sure to give examples of when you’ve operated in a creative open-ended mode, but also when you’ve been very task-focused when a deadline had to be met. You may miss out on an opportunity if you present yourself as too one-dimensional.

3. Do the job asked of you. If you’re in quality control, don’t hold off on a product delivery because you have an idea to make it better. Yes, you should share your ideas at the appropriate times, but your job is to authorize delivery when the product is good enough.