#103 - Research training gives superpowers
Plus: Work isn't fixed; Silence isn't consensus; Gratitude works; feedback formulae; Good strategy
My current job, like most of my previous jobs, include a lot of people who have worked for a long time in research — either as researchers themselves or in other roles, with Ph.D.s, or without.
I sometimes write about how working in research teaches us behaviours that are unhelpful when we get to management. That’s certainly worth calling out, but it’s only part of the story. Some of the behaviours and habits of mind we learn are extremely helpful, and we don’t even notice it.
In business management writing, you’ll see lots of discussion of “growth mindset” and “comfort with uncertainty”. These are real gaps they see in new hires and especially new managers. And yet it sounds like meaningless fluff to us, because we can’t even imagine it.
You don’t get into research, into the business of discovering completely new things about the world and the people in it, if you don’t believe people can grow their capabilities. You don’t go exploring if you’re uncomfortable not being sure about next steps. The frontier of current human knowledge is exactly where certainty stops. Searching out into the uncertain is a defining trait of people choosing a research path. And to be successful in that search, you have to grow your skills and trust that your colleagues can do the same.
So while “growth mindset” and “comfort with uncertainty” seem like empty phrases to us, they are high-achieving traits in other parts of the world.
Another skill is the ability to array and unify an entire team against a problem. “How are we going to…”. This is the basis of every research collaboration, and yet can be a new and foreign challenge to individual contributors in other sectors and industries who are in management for the full time.
Some of the other approaches we learn are prematurely developed advanced skills. These can actually hold us back a bit while we’re mastering the basics, but accelerate us when we’re growing responsibilities still further. The very collegial, consensus-building approach needed to get a multidisciplinary collaboration started and moving is exactly the sort of skills a senior manager or director needs to get buy-in across one or more organizations. We also need to learn the basic skills of being a bit more directive when needed while managing a single team. But the hardest part of mastering those basic skills is realizing that it needs to be done. They come down to a few easily learned behaviours. The shepherding of large collaborations is the advanced skill that we’ve already been sort of immersed of in research.
Where else have you seen (or been) research-trained folks struggle in management and leadership, and where have you seen research-honed skills shine? Let me know, by hitting reply or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A note from #101 - when talking about my leaving my old job, and missed delegation opportunities, I glibly said “There’ll certainly need to be another hire - the team is losing a person’s worth of effort, after all.” A long time reader rightly called me on that:
Part of that transition and the elements delegated (documenting procedures, etc) would ALSO benefit from a review of what everyone else is/was doing, and what can be delegated to the floor. Just because someone leaves doesn’t necessarily require someone to be hired back in to keep an FTE count constant: volume of work could be going up, staying the same, or decreasing; assessing the work being done and asking “do we as a team need that task accomplished, or are we doing that because we did it before?”.
This is, of course, correct. It isn’t a given that the amount of work is fixed - that one person leaving means that there’s necessarily one FTE worth of work that needs to be done. Big events like people leaving are great opportunities to take stock and reprioritize. Maybe task X or project Y really should just be quietly shelved, at least for now. In our case, we had just gone through a prioritization exercise, getting focussed on some near-term goals and deliverables. After that we were more focussed but were still right on the cusp of thinking we should hire one more person. So in this case there almost certainly will need to be a new hire. But one shouldn’t just assume that’s the case.
With that, on to the roundup!
Don’t Assume Consensus In The Absence of Objection - Candost Dagdeviren
Most people don’t like the conflict that comes with disagreement, and people especially don’t like disagreeing with their boss. Not hearing objections, particularly objections to something you’ve said, does not mean there’s no disagreement. It just means there’s no voiced disagreement.
So as Dagdeviren points out, you have to go out of your way to elicit disagreement. “What are things that could go wrong with this approach”, “what things does this miss”, “what are other things we could try” are all questions I tend to ask.
The good news is, it gets easier! As you continue to solicit (and react positively to) disagreement, after weeks and months of doing the same thing it will take less and less effort. People will be more comfortable raising issues. But in most teams, especially academic teams, you have to put the work in first to get there.
Gratitude Is More Powerful Than You Think - Chiara Trombini, Pok Man Tang, Remus Ilies, INSEAD Knowledge
Even in the with high levels of stress and overwork during the pandemic, simply expressing gratitude was enough to make a measurable impact on healthcare workers job (and even personal) happiness. This was especially true for doctors and nurses in this study who identified strongly with their job.
It is so easy to say thank you to your team members and give them positive feedback. It’s also really easy to forget to do so! As leads and managers our minds are often occupied with the problems and we forget to spend the moment it takes to give feedback on something done well or on time. We saw in an HBR article in #64 that there’s there’s no diminishing returns to positive feedback either, at any plausible level.
LifeLabs has a very short illustrated ebook to view or download - there’s a button to give your email address but you don’t need to do so to look at or download the PDF. (As a general rule I don’t recommend even pretty good resources that end up with you on a mailing list)
This ebook talks about the benefits of leading with feedback, and modelling the desired behaviour. The key piece, on structuring your feedback, will give familiar advice to longtime readers; it’s very similar to manager-tools or Lara Hogan’s approach - asking if you can give some feedback, noting the behaviour, noting the impact, and ending with an ask for a change (if negative feedback). This model also has a preamble, “I wanted to share X because I think it will help us Y”.
It’s always good to review the basics, and giving good and frequent feedback is one of the most important things we can do as managers or leads. Worth looking at if you’ve felt your feedback needs some brushing up.
In general LifeLabs Learning seems to do pretty good work in the teaching-people-to-manage space. At some point I should give a quick review of their book, The Leader Lab. Their writing style is… very different than my preferred nonfiction writing style, and I expect others in research would likely have a similar first reaction. But once I get past that the information there is solid, and the basic ideas are organized into different components than I’ve seen before. It’s genuinely useful to see concepts presented in novel ways. They also focus on very specific behaviours which makes putting their lessons into practice easier.
The good, the bad and the tech strategy - Anna Shipman
We talk about strategy here a good deal. A great crash course is Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, after which you’ll recognize bad “strategy” documents littering the landscape. (To the point that it’s like kerning. Don’t give someone that book without preparing them to be annoyed for the rest of their professional lives).
In this post Shipman shares a slide deck connecting the distilled central ideas of the book (she has a blog post expressing those ideas too) specifically to developing a technical strategy. The approach can also be applied to the strategy for a technical organization.
The first key point that Shipman emphasizes is Rumelt’s formulation of what a good strategy is - a diagnosis of the organization’s current situation, a vision of where to get to, and a coherent plan of action to get there. A good strategy focuses on one or two priorities, which means making hard choices.
The last dozen of Shipman’s focus on how that plays out for a team embedded within a larger organization. We can’t have a strategy without knowing what the larger org’s strategy is. We can’t have a sensible diagnosis or vision that’s not informed by bigger-picture priorities.
Want to join the iMessages group chat, but you’re being held back by your 68000-based classic Mac system? Messages for Macintosh is your answer.
I’m using Windows as my daily (work) driver for the first time since Windows 3.11 (which wasn’t much more than a DOS GUI). So I’m learning things about WSL and the like. Here’s a timely-for-me post on setting things up so you can SSH into WSL (including using Visual Code remote via SSH).
Interesting tracker for keeping track of job applications - huntr.co.
If you use gmail for work you can use multiple inboxes to keep things organized.
And that’s it for another week. Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share about the newsletter or management. Just email me or reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox.
Have a great weekend, and good luck in the coming week with your research computing team,