Managing Disruptive Research


This 3-day course is for researchers and managers who are attempting revolutionary, disruptive research. Lessons from history and NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project are distilled to show how to: identify important problems, make progress toward solving those problems, and satisfy management demands for scrutiny, affordability and near-term results. Lessons from Foster, Kuhn, Dyson, Clarke, Sagan, etc, are applied. Key points include; combining vision with rigor, contrasting the edge of knowledge with grand challenges, converting vague prospects of revolutionary gains into concrete terms, and reducing long-range ambitions into affordable, near-term work increments.


What you will learn:

    • Indentify the important problems to guide disruptive research.
    • Assemble the skill mix tailored for revolutionary research.
    • Convert long-term, uncertain prospects into near-term, sellable work packages.
    • Avoid the pitfalls of both pedantic resistance and delusional optimism.
    • Devise evaluation systems to meet the needs of sponsors and researchers.
    • Quantify research progress when ultimate fruition is unpredictable.

From this course you will learn what makes revolutionary research unique, and then apply those lessons to conduct and manage such research. While there is no guarantee that your team will discover breakthroughs, they will begin to make significant, leading progress.

Course Outline:

  1. Nature of Disruptive, Revolutionary, or Breakthrough Advances. Noticing when revolutionary advancements are needed. Contrasts to evolutionary innovations. Masters-verses-Pioneers conundrum. Why revolutionary gains are avoided. Natural institutional impediments. Distillation of influential sources; Foster’s S-Curve, Kuhn’s paradigm shifts, Dyson’s tool driven perspective, Clarke’s laws, Utterback’s dominant designs, Henderson’s architectural innovations, Anderson’s horizon mission methodology, etc. Case studies include; submarines, relativity physics, jet engines, steamships, 1963 racing cars, and NASA Breakthrough Propulsion Physics.
  2. Unique Challenges of Revolutionary Research. Both success and failure are disruptive. Prospects are beyond accrued knowledge and thus difficult to comprehend. Organizational values rooted in legacy rather than opportunities. Uncertain returns, both with respect to duration until fruition and magnitude of gains. Difficulty recognizing competence [Kruger-Dunning]. Difficult to demonstrate progress, short of achieving a breakthrough.
  3. Embarking on Revolutionary Ambitions. Deriving important problems by contrasting grand challenges and accrued knowledge. Utility and limits of science fiction [Forward, Emme, & Anderson]. Combining risk-taking vision with impartial analytical rigor. Skill mix on teams. Finding pioneers. Hamming’s great versus good researchers. Ideal circumstances versus available conditions.. Avoiding pedantic dismissals and fringe tainting, such as Langmuir’s pathological science, Sagan’s baloney detectors, Baez’s crackpot index, and Parks’ voodoo science.
  4. Project Management Specifics. Defining success as accruing reliable knowledge. Extracting next-step objectives from long-range unknowns. Measuring status to determine requisite work required. Technology Readiness Levels [Hord], and Applied Science Readiness Levels [Millis]. Iterated research. Diversified portfolio with focus. Techniques to secure impartial reviews – avoiding human tendency for reflexive dismissals while filtering out fringe detriments. Empirical emphasis. Publishing results while retaining competitive non-disclosure advantage. Devising project metrics of performance.
  5. Devising Selection Criteria. Joint process with sponsors and practitioners. Devising key evaluation factors. Multiplicative scoring to eliminate non-responsive submissions. Relative weighting as power functions. Scholastic grading standards. One page proposal summary and evaluation worksheet. Utilizing two-stage review process. Utility of statistical deviations of reviewer scores. Results of using this system with NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics solicitation (1999).
  6. Moving from individual to overall progress. Task progress in the big picture. Traceability Maps. Cycling back to deriving important problems by contrasting grand challenges with accrued knowledge. Using results to define next-steps. Strategic versus reactive planning. Applying project metrics of performance. Mitigating risks of revolutionary research.


This course is not on the current schedule of open enrollment courses. If you are interested in attending this or another course as open enrollment, please contact us at (410)956-8805 or at and indicate the course name and number of students who wish to participate. ATI typically schedules open enrollment courses with a lead time of 3-5 months. Group courses can be presented at your facility at any time.For on-site pricing, request an on-site quote. You may also call us at (410)956-8805 or email us at

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