Where To Discover An Exciting, Achievable Research Project: On Bill Hewlett's Undefended Hill

Bill Hewlett (cofounder of Hewlett-Packard) always told his employees to "attack the undefended hill" to do the research that leads to creation of products, services, and processes that no other company makes or provides. History shows that by creating unique innovations, HP moved into markets with no competition and generated very fast sales and profit growth as clients learned about their new solutions to previously unmet, sometimes unnoticed needs. Hewlett told his people to discover and occupy such hills, rather than fight the defenses on high hills that other companies had already discovered and occupied. Intuitively, he knew that the R&D landscape (or knowledgescape) offers many undiscovered high hills, and that his people would find them if they looked for them. That lesson has been well learned and is now taught in all of the better business schools.

One can easily draw an analogy between Hewlett's undefended hills and the landscape of cutting edge science and engineering research. Beyond the cutting edge, one finds an uncharted knowledgescape of undefended hills, large and small. Behind the cutting edge the knowledgescape is populated by "established" scientists and researchers representing new and established fields. Occupied and often well defended hills are visible everywhere, especially within the traditional disciplinary domains. As a graduate student, as an emerging research professional, where do you look to find the best research projects, the best career opportunities? The natural inclination is to follow those ahead of you and to seek the safety of the (apparently friendly) crowd. Furthermore, when looking for a research project or when deciding on a research direction, one's initial impulse is to look toward the apparent safety of occupied hills.

Realistically, however, the new researcher who is newly arrived on a highly populated tall hill is simply not as visible (to the world of potential employers) as the person climbing a newly discovered, unoccupied hill on the frontier side of the cutting edge. The history of science and engineering departments within major research universities, as well as all the rapidly growing segments of the high technology private sector, clearly shows that more doors, more opportunities, are opened for the more visible person climbing the previously unoccupied hill.

There are risks and there are problems with seeking undefended hills that fit your talents and interests. The cutting edge is risky territory. Portions of it are unexplored and much of it is shrouded in "fog" (the fog of lack of knowledge and information). To see the local landscape—the local unoccupied hills—through this fog, you need a compound lens of knowledge, the instincts that come with experience, and some luck. The visibility is far greater where established fields have cleared away the "fog." These areas are easy to spot; they are behind—they trail—the leading edge. Not only is the visibility there greater, the level of activity is greater. Remember that the cutting edge is moving. It is advancing left, right, and forward into the fog shrouded places, and the excitement and activity that characterizes the cutting edge moves with it.

Frequently the explorers that discover and first occupy new hills, choose to stay. They become scientific "settlers." They need and welcome the flood of colonizers that follow (including graduate students, postdocs, and other scientists), and begin "empire building."

The above "territory," "explorer," "defended hill" analogy is useful, within limits. In a real landscape the size of a hill is fixed. It changes little. That's not the case on the corresponding, imagined knowledgescape. A new knowledge hill can grow and expand as the occupant(s) of that hill generate and discover additional new knowledge. The opposite can also occur. A poorly assembled "compound lens of knowledge" can cause optical illusions that make a mound initially seem like a promising hill. As the newly arrived occupant(s) work(s) to generate and discover additional new knowledge, that promising hill may soon be seen as nothing more than a bump in the knowledgescape, or possibly just a mirage.

At the cutting edge there are vast, unexplored territories between the populated domains, the established fields. The courageous graduate student will choose a research direction and will seek out research projects within the fog-shrouded territory between, and, ideally, slightly ahead of the established fields. At that point, a knowledgeable guide can be incredibly helpful.

Companies grow very fast when they offer clients a unique product, service, or process that serves a real need or want. That's why Bill Hewlett (cofounder of Hewlett-Packard) always told his employees to attack the undefended hill -- to create products, services, and processes that no other company makes. By creating unique innovations, HP moves into markets with no competition and generates very fast sales and profit growth as clients learn about HP's new solutions to their previously unmet needs.

C. Anthony Hunt, PhD
The University of California, San Francisco
© 2001


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