#165 - Thinking In Experiments: Your Management Lab Notebook
Plus: Chronic complainers; (European) youth love the office; Manage your capacity, not your time
Manager, Ph.D. is a newsletter and community which helps people from the world of STEM research reach their full potential managing teams and growing their careers. We’ve already developed the advanced skills to be exceptional managers; we just need help with the basics.
If you’re new to the community, drop me a note! Some past issues from the archive which you might be interested in include:
#111, “The Complete Intern Checklist"
#130, “Taking On A New Responsibility”
And whether you’re new to the community or not, feel free to email me, or even have a quick chat with me about problems you have, or things you’d like to see!
Think In Experiments
So I got into this line of work because the plight of PhDs who have become managers infuriates me. We've got this population of experts - of smart, hardworking people - who have developed amazing cognitive and organizational capabilities. And then they step up to the challenging and thankless task of managing teams, often challenging teams, important teams of fellow experts, so that the team can accomplish what it's possible for them to accomplish. And so that the individual team members can grow and develop in their careers.
And yet nobody takes the time to show these experts, show these people from STEM PhDs, how to apply these skills they've developed in their line of work to how they work themselves. That's the main topic of this newsletter. You already have the skills. It's just that nobody has shown you how to apply them in this context.
I've written before, at length, about Annie Duke's book, "Thinking In Bets". This is a fantastic book. It describes a framework for thinking about decision making under uncertainty, deciding which of several options to take.
Within our community, I think we can take this one step further.
We want to develop our skills, grow our impact as quickly as possible, as quickly as we learned how to do in grad school. We want to make decisions and learn from how they turned out. We want to tackle complex projects and learn from how they went. And we want to know when to pivot, when to change our direction and when to stay the course.
So we can go one step further than thinking in bets. Once we commit to a course of action, we can think of everything we do as a manager as an experiment.
You Already Have Hypotheses; Test Them
Because whatever we do, whatever managerial decision we make, whatever project we take on, we're testing a hypothesis, right? We have a hypothesis that this set of actions will improve the world, or will improve our team, or will improve our own career in some specific way. There's a hypothesis here we can test. And however the experiment goes, we can learn from the observations that we make during the course of this experiment. Everything we do, we can learn from, grow from. We just need to structure our thoughts in a way that's helpful.
We already have really good tools for doing this. All of us who were in experimental fields kept a very careful lab notebook. When I was leaving academia, this practice was finally, finally taking hold even in simulation science fields. People performing numerical simulations would also start to use this approach to keeping track of what was going on, keeping track of what we were doing, and why, keeping track of our observations, so that we had this material we could learn from.
So I'd like to propose to you that we should be keeping a managerial lab notebook if we want to speed our learning, if we want to take a scientific approach to how we do our new job.
I've touched on this before, when talking about managerial decision-making. Or when writing elsewhere, about architectural decision records. I think it's worth putting all of this in one place and showing how to do it because it's a very useful technique.
So here is what I have been doing, what I do and what I've been recommending to others do. And it seems to have been helpful.
Keep A “Lab Handbook” of Decisions and Actions
Whenever we make a decision, whether that's addressing a team conflict in a particular way, how to give feedback to a team member, taking on a project, just log it somewhere. Note three things to start:
What the decision is,
Why you're making it,
And what the hypothesis is, what's the outcome you're expecting from this. Note: expecting, not hoping.
Then take another couple of notes. This can be in the moment or can come later - don't worry, you're going to come back to this page near managerial lab notebook, more than a few times.
First: what's the theory behind this? What are you expecting the mechanism to be between the hypothesized result and your decision or action?
Then, what would early indicators of success be for this action or decision? What would count as evidence that the theorized mechanism is in fact, taking place? What's a sign that the outcome is in fact, getting closer to happening?
Also, and just as importantly, what would be early indicators of failure? What would count as evidence that the mechanism is not kicking in or maybe doesn't exist at all? What is a sign that the outcome is getting no closer or even moving further away?
Finally, and you'll definitely add to this over time: what are the underlying assumptions in this decision and this hypothesis and this theory?
Then, leave room for some observations.
That's it. It sounds like a lot of work, but for most of the decisions we make, the actions we take, this is a few bullet points in whatever note taking system you're already using.
Small Decisions and Actions are As Important As Big Ones
Heck, for big decisions, most of the people I talked to are already thinking through several of these things. They're just not putting them down somewhere systematically. And they're not doing this for smaller decisions.
These smaller decisions are actually the ones that are most important to do this for. These are the ones we make every day. If we want to speed up the feedback cycle that will help us learn and grow and get better from our experimentation, those are the ones to focus on if only because of the relative numbers!
The point of a lab notebook, of course, is to be a source of data and metadata that we continually review add to and learn from.
Some people like to review their days at the end of the day or at the start at the next one. Others like to close out their weeks looking back into what happened over the last five days.
Myself, I always tend to start the week by reviewing past one-on-one notes and preparing for the coming week's, looking into project statuses, and then taking a look at my own notes on goals or efforts like this. For me, this is the perfect time to review and revisit decisions I've made and see how they going.
It doesn't really matter when you review your notes on decisions you've made. Any of these cadences are fine. Reviewing things biweekly or monthly would be fine. The point is to systematically notice what's happening. To systematically notice the impact of what you're doing. To break out of the managerial sensory deprivation that can make so many of us feel so lost.
In a future issue I’ll talk more about seeing patterns in these decisions, and from that learning a way to make some of these decisions more easily and more confidently.
Learn And Adapt
We know that experimentation is the best, fastest way to understand the external world, and the effects we have on it. When we adopt this practice in our managerial roles, we can learn much faster about which mechanisms exist and are effective, and which ones don't or aren't. We can see when actions aren't leading to intended outcomes effectively and change course, or stop entirely.
All we need to do, as is so often the case, is take the skills and practices we've already learned how to do in our work and apply them to how we work in our new roles.
And now, on to the roundup!
How to Deal with a Chronic Complainer - Karin Hurt and David Dye
Let’s start this off by affirming the vast majority of team members raising real issues they’re facing are not complaining. We need people to feel comfortable, even encouraged, to bring up problems, even if they do so repeatedly! This is all completely true.
It’s also true that most of us, in work or in our personal lives, have zero difficulty distinguishing between someone who frequently raises problems, and someone who is a chronic complainer.
Hurt & Dye distinguish usefully between two archetypes:
The person that’s just never happy
The person that cares maybe too much about some things, and is at risk of turning cynical because it’s not living up to their expectations
because even though the behaviour is superficially the same, the underlying reasons are very different.
They offer several helpful phrases and scripts for productively dealing with each case, and doing so respectfully and with curiosity so that we are surfacing real issues and helping people feel heard while not shutting them (or others!) down in the process.
Eight Roads Young Generation In Tech Report 2023 - Eight Roads
A survey of young people in tech in Europe. Interesting things here, but the one I want to highlight is that overwhelmingly, young people see working in an office as being very desirable, even while valuing flexibility in that arrangement. 56% of respondents preferred to work from office 4 or 5 days a week (!!).
There’s likely a number of reasons for this (do you remember your first apartment?), but an important one is that people new to careers and workplaces need and benefit from a lot of onboarding (which is partly social & cultural) as well as knowledge sharing. Even in 2023, that happens much more efficiently and comfortably in person.
I’m a huge proponent of remote and asynchronous work, and want to see it become increasingly standard for the kinds of work that allow it. But for that to happen in a way that doesn’t disproportionately disadvantage people new to the workforce, we have to learn how to help early career team members acclimatize quickly and become comfortable with the how and why as well as the what of our teams.
Give me a quick call to give me feedback on the newsletter or ask me a question - I’d love to hear from you!
Managing Your Own Job and Career
I have a whole thing on this which I’ve never written up here at length, and maybe now I don’t have to - I can just point to this article.
My bit usually went like this: There’s no such thing as time management. The management of time itself is not a power granted to us mortals. There’s only task management (the most important skill of which is declining them) and energy management (making sure we are in a healthy enough headspace to do the tasks).
The whole “time management” ecosystem focusses way too much on little 1-5% tweaks in efficiency, which makes you feel like you’re doing something useful, while drawing attention from what actually matters, effectiveness.
Rather than tasks and energy, Stanier talks about capacity and energy, which is a much better framing. In a way, they sound the same, right? You can talk about the tasks/items which require your capacity, or the capacity to take on tasks and items. Either way you’re matching one to the other.
But as Stanier shows, turning the focus to capacity is significantly better:
Our capacity varies over time (depending on the energy, which in turn depends on what we’re doing)
We need slack in our capacity, or any kind of emergency or interruption is going to throw us off kilter for significant periods of time
Also, while capacity measured say in units of time or energy is probably roughly fixed, our capacity measured in units of tasks and their size grows significantly when we put the effort into growing our capabilities and learning how to do them better and faster, or into delegating and growing the capacity of our teams (which we talk a lot about in #153 and #154). Investing some of your capacity into growing your capacity is one of the highest-leverage things you can be doing.
Even better for us STEM folks, he recommends doing some of the things we do best, which is collecting and then analyzing data by logging the tasks we spend our energy on through the week:
Don’t be the frazzled stress ball that struggles through each day. Understand the tasks you spend your time on, how you work, and how you can look after yourself to keep your capacity in check so you can do your best work. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes.
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 (hit reply or email firstname.lastname@example.org), leave a comment, or schedule a quick Manager, Ph.D. reader input call.
Have a great weekend, and best of luck in the coming week week with your team,