Saturday, January 12, 2013

20% protected time to generate new ideas

A laboratory is a factory of innovation which should generate new ideas to move your field forward. As a new Principal Investigator (PI), I have to decide how to drive the advancement of my lab. While I have more projects in my head than hands to complete them, how do I teach the members of my lab independence and spur even more innovation?  In a new lab you do not have a lot of grant money or startup to just give away for random pilot projects, but I have always been in labs where I was given complete freedom to work on whatever I wanted, so I never had to deal with a PI imposing a project on me and I shudder at the idea. What if one of your lab peeps comes up with a really cool idea you would have never thought of yourself?

A few months ago I found out about the 20% rule in technology companies, where employees are given 20% of their time (one day a week) to work on whatever they please to keep them engaged and foster innovation. The idea is to give employees the freedom to think independently and without direction, and it is widely applied at Google, leading to the development of tools such as Gmail or software fixes they would not have had time to work on during regular hours (here). Dan Pink discusses this approach at length in his book Drive, where he explores new approaches to increase motivation which I discussed in a previous post. However, Pink was not the first person to mention such a strategy. In speaking with senior PIs at Harvard Medical School during a mentoring session, I found that giving a portion of protected time to their postdocs to develop their own projects is a common strategy: "From 9am to 5pm you work for me, after 5pm you work on whatever you want".  This allows the postdoc to explore new ideas for their own labs which are clearly distinct from the PI's, but at the same time furthers the PI's line of research and supplies data and publications.

Everyone always tells me "Your hires are not you!". Depending on their previous training, not everyone will want to take up the challenge to develop something new and a lot of money may be wasted in trying if the learning curve is not steep enough, which is a serious concern. At the same time it would be great exercise for grad students, and a step towards independence for post-docs. Large labs with vast resources can afford for some people to falter or take 5 years to to develop a new idea, because if 4 out of 15 postdocs generate data for 4 major publications a year, you are still doing exceptionally well. Also, large labs already normally attract very ambitious and independent young scientists looking for the freedom to develop their own ideas. As I have learned from friends and colleagues ahead of me, the new PI must be very careful about how their hires perform and how the money is spent. There are two primary requirements which should be met in a small lab trying the 20% rule: 1) the person given the freedom must be innately independent or have a history of independent thinking; and 2) the PI must be willing to take the time to learn about the new project and provide appropriate guidance.

One more thing to try which may lead to success or doom....

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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