Sunday, November 11, 2012

Do you have too many monkeys on your back?

Who's Got the Monkey is an eye-opener and after reading it, I was not surprised it is one most popular reprints from the Harvard Business Review despite being almost 40 years old. As a grad student and often as a postdoc, you are mostly master of your own lab time or you have requirements imposed by your boss ("Attend lab meeting", "Do this experiment", "Go to this seminar"). However, when you start managing people it seems that there is never enough time: you have to deal with everyone's project, write that grant, write that paper, read that thesis, attend that meeting, prepare that talk, teach that class, fix that piece of equipment.....

This article divides time in 3 chunks which I loosely applied to lab work:
  • Boss-imposed time - anything a superior (your PI, your department chair, your dean) requires you to do and that you cannot disregard without penalty (faculty meetings, teaching, etc...).
  • System-imposed time - what you need to do to work with your peers and advance in your field (writing papers and grants, attending meetings and conferences, help someone learn a new technique, etc...).
  • Self-imposed time - things that you originate yourself, which may include subordinate-imposed time, the time devoted to the people working for you. This is time to plan experiments, read papers, work at the bench or run your lab.
Any task, issue, problem or any other thing that requires your attention is a "monkey", and a screaming monkey at times. Monkeys climb on your back and jump around your office becoming increasingly restless until you "feed them or shoot them" or pass them on to someone else. When someone asks you to do something, you've got the monkey. When someone passes an issue on to you, you've got the monkey. When a grad student asks you for advice, you've got the monkey. When you need a problem solved but fail to clearly communicate who needs to do it and how you want it done, you still have the monkey!! How many monkeys do you have? And most importantly how do you return the monkeys to their owners or get rid of some of yours?

This is the proposed approach:
  • Make appointments to deal with monkeys - Don't let them jump you in the hallway or on Friday night
  • Specify the level of initiative the person taking the monkey needs to have - Do they need to report back to you on every step? Or do you just want the monkey dealt with as they please?
  • Agree on a timeline for a status update
  • Examine your own motive - Are you hoarding monkeys because you feel bad giving them to others or you think you're the only one who can properly care for them? Are you giving away your own monkeys?
  • Develop employees' skills - Taking the time to teach people to deal with bigger and angrier monkeys will pay you back in the long term
  • Foster trust - Create communication and an open environment so that you trust your employees and they trust you to have their back
and if you want more, this Bloomberg Businessweek article nicely expands on the approach.

Pictures. Top: Black spider monkeys, Singapore Zoo, Singapore. Middle: Long tailed macaque, Ubud Forest, Bali, Indonesia.

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