#158 - Management Decisions For Researchers
Plus: Team training and delegation as part of the WGA strike demands; asking about career goals in the first 1:1; ideal team sizes; using assertiveness to disarm conflicts
Manager, Ph.D. is a newsletter and community which helps people from the world of research and scholarship make their impact as excellent managers. We’ve already developed the advanced skills to be exceptional managers; we just need help with the basics.
A big part of our jobs as managers and leaders is decision making.
We’re pretty good at making decisions! Our training helps us here in a lot of ways.
Part of decision making is design and creation. When faced with a problem, we generally have to summon potential solutions into existence. We’re normally not lucky enough to have someone present us with a complete selection of options to choose from like picking the most promising-looking chocolate from a box.
The other part is evaluation of those options. Weighing the pros and cons, assessing likely impacts.
The good news is that design/creation/problem solving and critical evaluation are skills we have in abundance!
But the context in which we have to make managerial decisions is very different than those we had to make in a research setting. Time pressure is the classic and much commented-upon difference. Our research decisions were often made under fairly relaxed and civilized time constraints, allowing for careful analysis deep exploration of options. The decisions we’re called to make as leaders and managers are often made under higher time pressure, leaving less time for pondering options and researching choices.
But there are other differences too:
Ambiguity: Our decisions in research were often made in very uncertain conditions — we were working at the forefront of human knowledge, after all! — but we knew what the problem we were tackling was, and we had pretty good criteria for knowing if we had solved it. We had high uncertainty, but low ambiguity.
When we’re working with teams, decisions are often made under conditions of uncertainty and high ambiguity, meaning that the problem and the criteria are unclear or changing and the outcomes are unpredictable.
Working Through Others: In our research, once we made a decision about how to proceed, we normally then just did the work by ourselves or with close collaborators. Planning next steps and assigning tasks was done implicitly. As manager and leaders, we’re frequently making decisions that will in part have to be implemented by others. This requires a lot more clarity and communication.
Scope Of Decisions/Stakeholder Involvement: Relatedly, our decisions also often require more buy-in from a wider range of people. Many of our decisions are “bigger” in some sense than the decisions we made about our research - they impact more people. The people dynamics of that situation requires a lot more handling.
We can handle these differences with the skills we already have - we just need to be aware of them and keep them in mind. Remember, we have lots of skills with:
designing experiments, and
learning from results and adjusting accordingly.
we can use these skills to make effective decisions in our new context! The suggestions I find myself most often giving people I work with are:
Be clear on who is affected by the decision and who will need to have input. A full out RACI matrix is generally overkill for our decision making, but thinking through who we should ask for input on the decision, who might have useful advice or data for us about the options, and who needs to know the result of the decision is extremely useful.
People will react negatively to even innocuous decisions that affect them if they weren’t at least informed the decision was happening, or preferably were asked their input. And they might have useful suggestions!
This input-gathering does not have to be a big thing. If the decision’s scope is the team, it could just be an agenda item on the team meeting, with a bit of discussion during the meeting and invitation to send us input afterwards. If it’s broader than that, it could be a single email or a couple quick chats with some particularly key people.
Be clear on the decision making process. A recurring problem I see comes from lack of clarity up front on how the decision will be made. Generally, I like decisions to have a single decider, and for that to be clear up front. It’s ok to have some kinds of decisions — say, about how the team does things going forwards — be up for a majority vote. (I don’t like consensus as a decision mechanism, as it places undue pressure on individuals who disagree.)
But there will be unnecessary friction caused if people think they have a vote – or worse, a veto — and in fact the decision will be up to you. It’s ok for the decision to be up to us, especially if we’re the one who will be held accountable for the outcome! Just say that up front: “I have to make a decision on X, and I’d like to hear your input".
Learn from results. Noticing change (#34) can be hard in our roles, because decisions we make play out over timescales of months or longer, as opposed to the quite immediate feedback we had as individual researchers. Keeping track of decisions and their consequences better helps us
Documenting, preferably somewhere public, the decision made, broad discussion of why, and what the constraints were for the decision. This is useful not just to help communicate the decision, but it helps keep track of when the decision might need to be revisited: when the “why’s” or constraints change.
Keeping notes of results, probably private and for our own information. As we do the routine daily and weekly work of management, paying attention to what’s happening and how it might be effected by the decisions we’ve made helps calibrate our understanding of how decisions play out in our team and organization.
Make Small Good Decisions Fast. A big problem for people from our community is a tendency for “analysis paralysis” - we want to keep researching possible options and analyzing possible outcomes until we’re confident we’ve reached The Best Decision.
That doesn’t work here! The timelines don’t allow it; the ambiguity of the circumstance doesn’t get resolved by thinking about it at our desks more; and the uncertainty in the outcomes means there might not be a single best decision anyway.
We’re not looking for The Best: we’re looking for a good decision. We can’t reason our way through ambiguity; we need to try something and learn to reduce the ambiguity. And we benefit from learning to move quicker even if it’s a little uncomfortable. The longer this decision sits on our shoulders, the longer it weighs us down through everything else we want to do, and backlogs other upcoming decisions. Making good decisions quickly and learning from them is the best way to learn to make better decisions:
How Reversible Is This Decision? Is the decision something we can readily walk back? In that case, don’t overthink it. Frame it as an experiment, choose (possibly in consultation with some others) some success criteria, try it, run a retrospective (even if just by yourself).
What’s a small decision that can move us forward? We know waterfall doesn’t generally work in our contexts. We don’t need a single complete plan. Is there some first decision, some first step we can take, that will get us moving quickly?
Lean Into Our Experimental Design Skills. What’s some small experiment we can do to reduce the ambiguity? Can we try a thing and learn something useful?
We Want Good. Agonizing over The Best decision will freeze us in place. We need a good decision, and some kind of feedback mechanism that will let us know if we’re going off the rails. Many of us grew up as A+ students, and this doesn’t always help us. As managers, if we can fairly consistently make decisions that would get a grade of B, we are doing extremely well.
We Can’t Guarantee Outcomes - Place A Bet. When we’re making decisions even under uncertainty, much less ambiguity, we can make a very good - maybe even The Best! - decision available to us and it can still end poorly. The desirability of the outcome doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the decision making process. All we can do is make reasonable decisions quickly, and keep learning and adjusting. There’s a nice and influential book, Thinking In Bets by, that frames decision making under uncertainty as placing bets. Make bets judiciously, learn from how they go, and continue.
Finally, make plans, not choices. For the decisions we make to be effective, they have to be implemented. This went without saying when we were deciding our own next steps. But when we’re making a decision that will be partly or wholly implemented by others, those next steps have to be explicit. A decision without a plan to start implementing it is just an expressed preference. Make sure every decision has some assigned next steps; if the decision is being made in a meeting, don’t let the meeting end without having some initial deliverables assigned with due dates.
What else have you found useful in making managerial or leadership decisions coming from our research & scholarship background? Let me know in the comments, or email me (hit reply, or email email@example.com)
And now, on to the roundup!
Ages ago back in #34 the roundup included an article by Daniel Jarjoura on the similarities between TV show running (including running the writers room) and managing teams of experts (in that case, software developers), and what we could learn from show runners. This twitter thread really hammers home some of the analogies.
The Writers Guild of America strike that’s currently happening has generated a lot of really interesting (and, naturally, well-written) commentary on team creative work, and what people with specialized skills need to be successful.
In Rogers’ twitter thread, he emphasizes the need to have writers (here the ICs) on set for training for when they become show runners, or even so they know what the cast and crew really need. If something goes wrong on set, or they’re setting up a scene and realize it can’t be filmed properly, or they need to shave time off of a shooting because something else has gone wrong, the show runner needs to fix it. And that requires rewriting. But writers turned new show runners won’t know how to do this unless they’ve seen this kind of problem solving done before.
Our fairly specialized work plays out very similarly! You probably saw this in your own transition to management. You had been a very successful individual contributor, doing a lot of work on your own; but as you grew in responsibility suddenly you were thrust into the world of stakeholders and translating needs and challenges back and forth.
We can do better for our team by exposing them (in small but growing doses) to the needs of the larger institution - stakeholders, decision makers - by delegating interactions and responsibilities to them. Not only will this grow their skills as an IC, by better helping them understand what is valuable and needed; it will prepare those of them that want to become team leads and managers by developing that perspective and those skills ahead of time, rather than the “baptism by fire” that most of us got.
You can probably tell that delegation is pretty important to me - some recent roundup items or articles on delegation to help grow team member skills can be found in:
#70 - Always be quitting - continually hand off your own responsibilities as if you were leaving
#101 - My coming face-to-face with missed delegation opportunities when I left my previous job
#123 - Taking advantage of your upcoming vacation to delegate
#154 - Finding small ways to grow team members and delegate tasks
Asking about career goals in the first 1:1 - Amy Vora,
Vora recommends starting the new hire relationship by asking about career goals right away. I like his because makes it clear that we view career and professional development as a shared responsibility right from the beginning.
In the article, Vora describes how this helps build a foundation of trust, helps channel specific projects or skill-building activities their way right from the beginning (even if not their direct manager), allows a conversation about how it’s ok not to have a clear path outlined or for it to change, and helps start building a growth plan.
In Research Computing Teams last week, I gave my proposed advice to a (fictitious) manager who was losing a key team member.
Partly because of our training and projects we’ve worked on, and partly out of an admirable and well-intended preference towards wanting to have people feel included, many of us get too many people involved in projects and tasks.
But there’s a balance between having people involved and being able to move quickly. In particular, setting direction benefits from lots of input and a wider range of voices. But actually getting a decided-upon thing done benefits from having a small focussed team with just the expertise and perspectives needed to execute.
In a larger organization, it’s perfectly reasonable to have a smaller sub-team tackle some work:
More importantly, the members should not be representative of a larger team but selected specifically for their unique skills or expertise related to the challenge.
For leaders, the question to ask and answer is: What composition of 4-6 people would give us the best chance to achieve this task with excellence?
Obviously the “right” size will depend on a lot of factors (size and complexity of the work, who’s actually available) but 4-6 is a good rule of thumb that comes up in multiple contexts.
Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that people will feel left out! As we develop our asynchronous work skills of working around documents (#155), and by having sub-teams report back to a larger group what they’re doing and what they’ve learned, we can still have transparency and knowledge-sharing even with ad hoc sub-teams forming and disbanding over time.
Managing Within Organizations
Patience and resolve are needed to work through a dispute with assertiveness. It is challenging to handle aggression without becoming confrontational. Overriding your emotional response is helpful in preserving productive relationships. When you encounter conflict you can use strategies to get to common ground.
In this article, Mitchell describes a concrete approach to diffuse conflicts -
Head off conflict by building relationships
Know your anger triggers
Disarm aggressors with assertiveness
I really like the points Mitchell makes here, and in particular how she’s broken it down into clear stages - try to head conflict off, avoid escalating it by getting angered yourself, and then aiming to disarm the conflict.
The first two points are items that come up in some form from time to time, but rarely put this succinctly. Peer one-on-ones (e.g. the Lighthouse blog article in #137) are one great way to make time to build relationships across the organization. And while I’ve mentioned in #151 our tendency to not escalate hard conversations, learning more concrete ways to prevent the amygdala hijack and reacting when angry as Mitchell points out here is really valuable.
She then recommends being assertive (rather than retreating into ourselves) but not aggressive in our responses, with three categories of actions (and several examples of each)
Bring in humour
Embrace the aggressive point of view and examine the impact together
Look for common ground
And that’s it for the week! I hope it was useful; Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share with me about how a newsletter or community about management for people like us might be even more valuable. Just email me, leave a comment, or reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox.
Have a great weekend, and best of luck in the coming week week with your team,