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.

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