Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Project Management in Academia 101: Getting people invested into the project

The thing about managing a project, any type of project, is that you cannot do it without the people who are actually doing the work. You can plan every step in detail and assign specific tasks and deadlines, but everything can come tumbling down because of lack of interest or miscommunication. Even when you're running an independent project, unless you work in a separate room with your own equipment focusing techniques you perform alone, you will need other people to help or provide services. In academic research, like in any business, personnel will always be the variable that makes or breaks your lab.

I have written extensively on how to hire a few years ago: some of those pieces are still timely and I wish I had taken the time to re-read them recently (herehere and here). Briefly, in an ideal world, you want lab members who are smart, engaged, passionate, and self-directed. Drive and intellectual curiosity are qualities that beat expertise in a job candidate, and in a training environment, independence and passion for a specific topic can be cultivated. But as I like to put it, if there is no wood, you cannot light a fire!

The issue of motivation fascinated me since I was a grad student. One night a new hotshot PI showed up in our lab, while a postdoc and I were working away and asked us "Why are you here? Your boss has been gone for hours and you're here. Everyone in my lab is gone and I'm here..." Our simple answer was "I don't know....we have experiments to do?" There are multiple reasons why someone would burn the midnight oil. Some have to do with carrots or sticks, but what would make someone WANT to work and do it happily?

Before I even started my lab I read "Drive" by Daniel Pink which I think is a necessary read for anyone interested in motivation. To foster workplace happiness and engagement, Pink proposes a motivation paradigm based on three principles: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. People want Autonomy: to be in control of their lives and of how they do their job. They also want Mastery: to be really good at something and to keep trying to achieve our goals. And finally, Purpose (a greater ideal to aspire to) brings it all together. Studies have shown that once the basic economic needs are met, Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose always trump financial gain.*

As a scientist, this made sense to me, since this is exactly why I do what I do. I am (mostly) in charge of my work and of my schedule, I love solving complex scientific problems with the final goal to help mankind better understand and treat neurodevelopmental disorders. Purpose is the hook and I find it's the way to get lab members engaged in a project starting with undergraduates and interns. If you do not give them the bigger reason, sometimes the slog of troubleshooting is too much to bear. Also, a lot of science tasks are boring, but still need to get done, and knowing why they are important helps get through them. Mastery gives a sense of accomplishments, and I tend to match projects to the techniques that someone is good at or would love to learn.

Sure, but in a small starting lab, how do you get Autonomy? What if you have someone picking up or joining an existing project? Or you need someone to focus away from what they are doing for the own project and help with something else? Again Mastery and Purpose come into play where clearly explaining the reasons why this is important and why a certain expertise is needed can get employees to buy in. "Ownership" of the research question and of the experiments is one of the most important aspects of getting students and trainees invested in the research.**

Finally, in a great piece on research motivation that touches some of the same topics, Uri Alon also discusses "social connectedness" as a motivation tool. We all know how much better it is to be in a work environment where everyone is invested in your success. While I don't buy the "My lab is a family" argument, I think a manager should strive to obtain a harmonious work environment by keeping conflicts in check, setting clear rules, and make employees feel listened to and appreciated. The right "vibe" in the lab will make people want to come to work.

* Daniel Pink's newest book is When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing and talks a lot about when you should perform certain tasks depending on your circadian rhythm. I'll review when I'm done.

** As a disclaimer, even as a small lab I give everyone their own project which makes me much slower than I should be in publishing. I always had complete autonomy in my work, and I cannot bear to force someone else to do otherwise, but this may not be the best solution for everyone and many trainees may like working together and benefit from it.

1 comment:

  1. Tag: PM236A51. Let me share all of you about #5 Tips for Project Management Success,, I hope you enjoy it

    1. Plan your day using time management techniques

    As a project manager, time management skills are essential because you are dealing with a wide range of tasks that demand a quick turnaround time. Planning your day will go a long way in keeping you organized and increasing your productivity. Assist your task planning by using project management software which helps you track the work of you and your team.

    If you are not very tech savvy, a simple to-do list can also be a great organizational tool. Prioritize your most important tasks by putting them at the top of the list and less important ones at the bottom. Having a visual plan of your daily tasks helps to keep you on track and aware of time.

    Related post: Free ebook 104 secrets to become a great project manager

    2. Include stakeholders in important project conversations

    While you will have plenty of responsibilities regarding the project, don’t neglect your clients.

    Good communication is essential is keeping both parties informed of project progression, curtailing scope creep, and apprised of changing requirements. Some clients may have different expectations when it comes to communication, so make sure to establish the frequency and type of communication (like emails, phone calls, and face-to-face conversations) at the beginning of your project.

    Establishing communication expectations early helps alleviate stakeholder uncertainty about communication frequency and delivery.

    3. Regularly communicate with your team

    Daily team communication helps keep misunderstandings and unclear requirements under control. Keeping your team informed in every step of the project is essential to project management success.

    For example, a study published by Procedia Technology found that good communication skills were the cornerstone of project management. The study examined over 300 “construction project managers, architects, construction managers, engineers and quantity surveyors” and their successes and failures on various construction projects.

    4. Anticipate project setbacks

    Even the best-laid plans often go awry.

    Remember that even with a high amount of planning and attention to detail, your project may still encounter some challenges. Pay attention to complaints from stakeholders or colleagues, and other warning signs, like a missed deadline or cost overrun, that there may be a problem.

    Preventing a crisis will keep your project running smoothly, save you a lot of time, and keep you, your team, and your stakeholders confident in progressing with the project.

    Unfortunately not every complication can be avoided. Crisis management skills are essential for dealing with the unexpected. Project managers need to be flexible and pragmatic. Improvise and make sharp decisions when needed.

    Related post: 92 free project management templates

    5. Stay focused on the details

    A common problem project managers encounter is having the project aims not aligned with the organization’s objectives. A great project manager will strategize a plan for the project to lead back to the overall success of the business.

    Know your project’s scope by heart and avoid wandering outside of the project’s requirements. It’s too easy to get lost in minor details and forget what your focus is, so a well-planned project scope is essential for success.

    And final, you should use KPI to measure effectiveness of the project, here are full list: 76 project management KPIs