Time to Prune Your Technology Pipeline

Time to Prune Your Technology Pipeline

 Prune March 2014

I have about a dozen apple trees in my back yard; I transplanted them a few years ago from a local apple orchardist who needed to get rid of them to make room for a different breed.  They were last pruned 3 years ago.  Last summer we harvested about one bushel from these trees.  The summer before that I think there was one edible apple harvested.   I have taken a pruning course and have studied apple tree pruning for some time now.   This weekend I had my loppers and my new pruning knowledge, it is the right time of year so I decided it was time to prune.  While I was pruning these trees I thought of several principles to growing productive apple trees that could be applied to my career in R&D.  Pruning apple trees is about energy management, the goal is to produce the maximum number of large healthy apples. 


An apple tree if ignored will produce a very large number of small unhealthy apples and it will be continuously harassed by pests.


There are at least six principles to maximize apple tree productivity; a professional likely knows several more but these are the ones that come to my mind.

  1. Protect the tree from parasites. Vines from other bushes, bugs, voles, rabbits and deer all want to eat bark, buds, leaves and apples from the apple tree; this year-round pressure can destroy a trees fruit quality and overall productivity.  It can even kill a tree itself, fencing, chemicals, trunk guards and wood chips are common tools to protect trees from these pests.
  2. Cut branches away that are growing vertical.  The reason for this is to maximize the light down in the lower part of the tree and to not allow shading of the lower leaves and fruit.
  3. Cut the branches that grow back toward the trunk of the tree, this also is a light management technique to keep light and airflow down through the entire tree.
  4. Cut away branches that produce leaves and apples too much for the size of the tree, apple trees will produce more sticks and more apples than the size of the tree can support. If you have ever noticed an un-pruned apple tree you will know what I mean.  The ignored tree will produce many small, unhealthy and unripe apples.
  5. Cut away dead wood, dead wood takes up space in a tree and can block sunlight.
  6. Thin the new apples, this means cut away apples which are too many, this is done when the apples are about the size of a dime, usually early summer, at this point you can see how many apples a tree is trying to produce.  If there are too many apples it is wise to cut away apples if they are growing more than one every six inches.  This is difficult to do for the novice pruner; hundreds and possibly even thousands of small apples sometimes need to be cut away.  After thinning, the surviving apples will grow larger because the energy flow from the tree is divided into less apples making each apple larger and more healthy.  Think of it this way, at harvest time, would you rather have 200 high-quality large ripe apples with great sugar content or 1,000 small, un-ripened apples that contain less sugar and taste somewhat bitter?  Quality is better than quantity for most people. 

These fruit tree principles can be applied to our innovation divisions and companies; there are times when leaders need to prune their portfolio.


There can be ‘parasites’ that want to drain teams of energy, employees who sap morale, sap the joy and excitement of creating, of innovating and of inventing new products.  The leader who is mindful of the productivity and the long-term fruitfulness of the team, will have the courage to set some boundaries to protect morale.  Some people are negative dream killers, they have given up on a lot in life and they spread that defeat and depression around, leaders should protect culture from these people because they hinder productivity.

Sometimes projects grow and expand in ways that hinder energy from getting into the ‘core’ of the company.  We should remember to take time for culture, take time to renew energy, the culture and morale of a R&D or innovation team is more important than the number of projects it works on.    When we take the time to focus on culture, on leadership unity and on clarity of vision we lead our company well.  The benefit of this is that we can produce higher quality innovation projects.  Excessive busyness can be like apple limbs growing vertically or back toward the trunk, they hinder the healthy culture that refreshes the energy of the company (sunlight into the base of the tree).  Trim away busy projects that perpetually consume employee time; set aside times of team building, time for employee training and personal development.  If projects demand employees at every waking hour for an extended period with no return on investment, ‘prune’ them out of your team.

Let’s face it, some of us produce a large quantity of lower quality fruit. Entrepreneurs call this the “bright shiny object syndrome”.  We get excited about opportunities or projects and don’t follow them through to completion.  I have a hard time with this personally; even now there are at least two major unfinished projects on my hard drive that need completion.  I now try to make it a rule to end one project, or bring it to completion, before starting a new one.  It is better to produce one completed project per month or per year then it is to produce five half-baked projects.  Similarly, leaders need to trim away the half-baked innovation pet-projects so that fewer projects can get more employee energy. It is not easy to decide when to cut your losses and quit certain projects for the sake of other things.  Is there another project that may be less exciting but would be a better use of employee time and company capital? You want to divide up your limited energy supply among fewer projects and increase the quality at the expense of quantity as is done in early summer when I thin hundreds of small apples.


Like the apple tree, R&D and innovation teams exist to bear fruit and to create great things for society.

Does your company or R&D portfolio need pruning?