#138 - What should we teach new managers?
Plus: Retrospectives are a powerful tool; Gratitude works
I spent much of this week helping teach a small part of EMBL-EBI’s excellent Managing a Bioinformatics Core Facility course (Here’s the 2021 public materials). It was my first time participating, and I was really impressed. There were a large number of new, motivated, engaged core facility leads; the workshop was very interactive, with multiple exercises every day, lots of group discussion and sharing of experience, and a lot of material covered.
The audience being leaders of core facilities, much more time was spent on cost recovery models. There was also a terrific series of exercises on service design, which also isn’t common to discuss in our academic backgrounds but really should be.
But it was fascinating to see how common the fundamental issues were. Many of the questions which came up would be very familiar to you, reader — hiring and retention, motivating staff, working with recalcitrant researchers, dealing with benign neglect from leadership, demonstrating impact, improving execution, prioritizing efforts.
It’s interesting to think about what a course for new managers from the world of research would best cover. I have my usual 10-minute “Help, I’m a manager!” talks, but what would we cover in a half-week course?
My own ideas, pictured above, wouldn’t be surprising - it’s the topics covered here. Maybe also on communications/marketing/positioning.
What do you think? What would have helped you when you started, or what do you see newer colleagues struggling with? Are there other topics that would have to be covered? Things that could be cut that are covered well elsewhere? Let me know - hit reply or email email@example.com
One last note on the EMBL-EBI course - the short section I covered was a crash course into the 20% of project management that gets you 80% of the benefit. I had what I figure are nuggets of hard-won wisdom gold in there, but what really captured the attention of attendees was routinely having retrospectives after projects, and continually improving. (Core facilities execute on a lot of projects, with each service provided being a project).
It’s pretty easy to underestimate the power of continual incremental improvement. These new leaders saw what I think more experienced and jaded leaders can sometimes be more hard-pressed to see: things can always fairly easily get a little bit better, and sustaining those small improvements over time compounds into something remarkable.
The lovely thing about retrospectives is that once you start taking action on suggestions (whether from the team or the researcher client) there’s a virtuous cycle. People are more willing to make suggestions when they see that suggestions actually matter; it builds trust and confidence, in addition to the improvements it brings. It boosts engagement because people feel more ownership over something they have influence over. People feel respected and more effective.
And internal retrospectives help the team decide collectively how they want to work. Issues with processes or conventions inside the team will naturally come up, and a good facilitator can help the team trial new processes.
Retrospectives are an under appreciated tool, and they don’t have to be a project management thing; they’re something that can happen regularly in any team.
Finally, just a small housekeeping item: we’ll have newsletter issues Dec 3, Dec 10, and Dec 17 as usual, and then Manager, Ph.D. will settle in for a long winter’s nap. We’ll start up again Jan 14.
And with that, on to the roundup!
How to… make people happy - Ethan Mollick
Notes of Appreciation Can Boost Individual and Team Morale - Whitney Johnson and Amy Humble, HBR
I’ve mentioned research before (#64, #112) that there’s basically no plausible amount of gratitude we can express, to team members or broader community members, which is too much. Saying thank you in person, or in a short written note, takes approximately zero effort and yet is extremely impactful.
In celebration of US Thanksgiving, Mollick (a prof at Wharton) summarizes a paper on written expressions of gratitude:
…[T]his paper shows we undervalue showing gratitude. We think it will be awkward, we think people know we are grateful, we think it won’t matter much. All of that is wrong. People who were asked to write letters of gratitude to other people overestimated the awkwardness of the experience, and underestimated the impact on the recipient’s mood and happiness.
There are other papers summarized, as well:
One points out that we also think complimenting people will be unappreciated and awkward, and it isn’t.
Maybe particularly appropriately for our line of work, another paper demonstrates that even if we can’t completely solve someone’s problem, people appreciate partial help almost as much as full help.
And a final paper covers spontaneously contacting someone just to say “hi” and catching up. Again, we overestimate how awkward and unappreciated it would be, where in fact it is generally appreciated, whether it’s someone we know well (strong tie) or less (weak tie).
Similarly, Johnson and Humble describe work they do at their leadership retreats, with everyone charged with writing notes of appreciation. They describe the results:
They help the recipients see their strengths
They focus the sender and the receiver’s attention on what’s working
They signal to people that they matter
Another datapoint that “modern”, “innovative” workspaces (open concept, beanbags, etc) don’t promote creativity or collaboration.
Pretty good argument about why FOSS so often has bad UI/UX - the very distributed decision making that comes with successful FOSS projects are at odds with the holistic, coherent design process that UI/UX benefits from.
I’m unreasonably excited about advent of code starting soon.
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 team,