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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

9 R&D questions every business should ask

George Heilmeier is well known in research and development circles as the former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

While he left the agency in 1977 and went to serve as an executive at Texas Instruments and Bellcore, his legacy at DARPA lives on through what has become known as the Heilmeier Catechism, a set of questions to answer when developing a research proposal.

I wasn’t familiar with the catechism until Catherine Cotell, director, Office of Incisive Analytics at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity talked about them during her session at the Washington Technology Industry Day on Emerging Technologies.

IARPA has a similar research and development mission as DARPA, except the focus is on the needs of the intelligence community. She said IARPA asked many of the same questions that are part of the Heilmeier’s catechism.

It was easy to find online, and I’ve reposted them here:

1. What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon. What is the problem? Why is it hard?

2. How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?

3. What's new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?

4. Who cares?

5. If you're successful, what difference will it make?   What impact will success have?  How will it be measured?

6. What are the risks and the payoffs?

7. How much will it cost?

8. How long will it take?

9. What are the midterm and final "exams" to check for success?  How will progress be measured?

Granted these are questions were born in the R&D world, but they really can apply to any kind of project, and are probably questions worth asking when you are developing a solutions or a response to a proposal.

I particularly like questions 4 and 5, which are very related in my mind: Who cares, and what difference doe it make?

If you can’t answer those questions, you might as well give up.


I also like question 3 – What’s new in your approach? That really gets to the challenge of differentiation in today’s market.


So, whether you are in R&D or not, it’s probably a good idea to keep these nine questions handy. Your customer might not articulate them exactly this way, but being able to answer these questions in a meaningful way might mean the difference between winning or losing.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Sep 15, 2015 at 9:30 AM

Reader Comments

Wed, Sep 16, 2015 Charlie Scuilla

Heilmeier's Catechism is not the only why to manage R & D - actually most of the real technical successes from DARPA where before started before Heilmeier's short tenure at DARPA. Bell Laboratories never adopted his questions.

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