Saturday, February 2, 2013

Some things I've learned from communication breakdowns

In the past few months we have had a few major communication breakdowns that severely affected a part of the project. Experiments were working erratically and when we started troubleshooting, we discovered multiple issues. Standard operating procedures were not set up correctly or changed because of outside advice and experiments were conducted in a sub-optimal (or not greatly controlled) way. Reagents were not working as they used to, but nobody noticed or thought that it was important to mention it and get it rectified. All this cost money, long hours of work to do the experiments in the first place and more hours to perform controls to figure out what was happening, call companies to discuss reagent issues, and it eventually delayed the completion of our project.

The breakdown of communication happened at multiple levels:

1) Incomplete Pass: I, in the first place, ignored one of the most common advice given to a new investigator: "Your hires are not you". I assumed wrongly that something was obvious, because it was obvious TO ME, when in reality it was not obvious for the person asked to perform the task. I did not double check the protocol or personally follow the experiment the first time. I trusted the trainee with a new task and the task was performed wrongly for a couple of months until someone else came in and saw what was going on. Once that I realized what happened, I could only be angry at myself, because I had made an assumption that they were going to read my mind.

2) Sideways Interference: Someone else recommended a protocol which was used for while and I thought my protocol was being used. The new protocol missed a few key steps which could have led to the observed variability in the results. I had trusted that my protocol was being used and was completely blindsided.

3) Unforeseen Sack: We received a few new reagents in October and I heard that they were not performing perfectly, but it wasn't until I had to run that type of experiment myself in early January, that I realized that there was something terribly wrong. Emails, phone calls, hours of tests and 3 weeks later we figured out what the problem was.
The vendor: Yeah, we've been having issues with it depending on the lot.
The New PI: But I've been using this reagent for 10 years and never had an issue. We compared it with the new, improved and recommended version a few months ago and they were identical.
The vendor: The new version is actually the old formulation because we changed formulations recently and the new one has this problem, but it still has the old name.
The New PI: Ah, I see. Can I return the bad stuff (new formulation/old name) and get some of the good stuff (old formulation/new name)?
The vendor: Sure! Here is a full refund!!
Despite the aggravation, the big problem here is that people noticed something was off, but nothing was done for months, actually making some experiments impossible because the reagent was so off to be unusable for some of our needs.

To continue with the football metaphor: What was wrong with the design of my plays? What is wrong with the team?
Two issues that I can see:
1) My players are rookies. They are learning and show a lot of promise, but they are at that training wheel phase when you can ride a bicycle pretty well and sometimes still lose control when the terrain gets rough. I failed to support them and follow them.
2) My plays need better planning and more coaching. During leadership training, I learned that good leaders have contingency plans and my plans have not been fully worked out yet. Also, I cannot just dole out instructions without making sure that people understand exactly how and why they are doing something. I still need to teach.

I guess I'll never stop learning how to manage people, but these were a few good months of errors to learn from.

Image credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Herbert D. Banks Jr. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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