There’s nothing I love more than learning something new from one discipline and applying it to something different. Such was the case recently when a client of mine, a thermal scientist, shared Heilmeier’s Catechism with me. George Heilmeier was an engineer who headed the research group at RCA that developed the first liquid crystal display and eventually went on to become the CEO of Bellcore in the 1990s.

During his tenure as the Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Heilmeier created a set of questions, now known as Heilmeier’s Catechism, that he wanted answered for any proposed research project or product development effort. So simple, yet these questions are wonderfully thought-provoking and substantive.

  1. What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  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? If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  5. What are the risks and the payoffs?
  6. How much will it cost? How long will it take?
  7. What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?

You may have a great idea, and perhaps you are hoping to gain buy-in and interest from the leaders of your organization. Imagine how powerful it would be to go into those conversations armed with your answers to these questions! We can easily get discouraged and frustrated when met with resistance or doubt about our idea. One of our recent blog posts, Do what you can, focused on this issue. But what better way to demonstrate your understanding of the issues and your conviction to the success of your idea than by articulating your answers to Heilmeier’s Catechism?

These are great Thoughtful Leadership questions as well. We all have more on our plates than we can manage, and any tool that helps us to prioritize, vet, and strengthen the opportunities before us is a great help. As a leader, these questions can help you, your team, and your organization think through possible approaches and test the mettle of the numerous projects vying for precious resources. These questions can provide you with the clarity you need to be more thoughtful, and effective, in your choices and your approach.

The next time you are sitting in a meeting and ideas and project proposals are flying around, step back and board Heilmeier’s Catechism and begin the conversation anew. See where it takes you and what new ideas it opens up for you.

What do you think about Heilmeier’s Catechism? How can you apply these engineering-based questions to the challenges you are facing today?

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