#44 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 7 July 1993
First Principle of Research Management—Say Yes!
Gilman is a Senior Scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.
He has held positions at the General Electric Company,
Allied-Signal Corporation, Amoco Corporation, and professorships
at Brown University and the University of Illinois.
His book Inventivity: The Art and
Science of Research Management was published recently (Van
Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1992).
first research boss revealed an interesting policy to me long
after I had quit reporting to him.
When a researcher in our group came to him with a request,
his response was typically, “Yes, go ahead.”
He made exceptions to this policy, of course: If
he had a really dim view of the request, he would ask the person
to find more information and come back for further discussion.
This often closed the case.
But if the person returned, my boss gave his approval.
first sight, this policy may seem too simple, but in reality it is
subtle and powerful. Powerful
because it solves several sticky social problems in one stroke.
Subtle because it never relieves the researcher of
responsibility, yet always reaffirms that he or she is okay.
the boss said yes to a
novel experiment that one researcher proposed—an idea that
resulted in a Nobel Prize in physics.
Other accomplishments of the group have also been
impressive, and I think we all were marked by contact with that
outstanding “say yes” policy.
ideas are rarely born whole—often they start out wrong but
correctable. They are
incomplete and need an additional twist.
Often the available information is not enough to
distinguish the metal from the dross.
these conditions—which mark most R&D—good management
stands aside, realizing that its first function is to enable. There will be plenty of time for judgment.
yes may be necessary, but it is not sufficient for effective
other factors contribute to getting above-average performances
from an average group of researchers?
The number may be surprising.
With so many factors at play, we may see an explanation for
the scarcity of really effective research management.
first corollary is to seek
it, that “yes” will have little effect.
Finding and hiring talent is by far the most important task
of a research manager. Once a person has completed a graduate program, he or she has
either shown talent for research or not shown it. Research talent is not the same as talent for scholarship.
I have participated in final examinations of doctoral
candidates who were brilliant scholars but had minuscule talents
for creative research. They
typically had great analytic skills, but lacked curiosity,
flexibility, and the ability to synthesize.
In these respects, they were the antimorphs of an Edison.
does a manager identify talent?
The simplest and most effective method is by asking the
candidate. Like the
“Shadow” of old radio,
only candidates “know what lurks in their hearts”.
(You can winnow out the occasional person who attempts to
project a misleading image by talking to the candidate’s
systematize the question, and its answer, ask the candidate what
has provided the greatest sense of accomplishment during each
five-year period of her or his life.
Look for a pattern in the answer.
My experience indicates that this pattern remains stable
during an individual’s life.
The pattern of a businessman will have quite different form
than that of a creative researcher; it is unlikely to change with
age or circumstances.
the Job to the Individual
your task in hiring and management is to fit a menu of jobs to the
individuals within your group.
This is not
the common pattern of fitting people to jobs.
the next most important management factor is being there, which is sometimes called MBWA, or “managing by
walking around.” A
famous practitioner was Willis Whitney, the first director of the
General Electric Research Laboratory.
Legend has it that he visited each of his researchers daily
to ask, “Are you having fun?”
He let each researcher know he was interested in their
work, and gave them a chance to interact informally with him.
they built a laboratory for Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, my
friends Maurice (Bud) Shank and Frank VerSnyder put the entry
corridor directly through the executive suite.
Thus, while coming and going each day, the employees could
see the managers at work, and drop in for a chat.
It also gave management a chance to express interest and
appreciation. One of
the best ways to undermine the motivations of any creative group
is to withhold appreciation, a currency far more precious than
was the payoff? The
Pratt & Whitney lab gave us the present generation of aircraft
turbine blades which, as a result of being formed from one large
crystal, are exceedingly strong at high temperature.
and VerSynder had a boss who said “yes” to the three-year
proposed budget of their new lab.
“Go ahead, I'll see you in three years”, he said.
And he kept his word!
can enhance research productivity by encouraging everyone in the
organization to write. I did not learn this painlessly.
While I was in graduate school at Columbia University, the
renowned Professor Taggart ran a laboratory course on mineral
dressing. The focus
of the course was not the subject matter, but rather how to think.
A lab report
looked like it had been dipped in blood after receiving Taggart's
tender scrutiny—it had that much red pencil!
The professor savaged sloppy word choices, dubious grammar,
and especially, rickety logic.
He devastated smugness but improved clarity.
going to school, I worked part-time at the research laboratory of
the Crucible Steel Company of America, for one of the great
metallurgical inventors of the time.
Peter Payson invented ultra-strong, exceptionally stainless
steels for automobile valves and cutting tools.
Payson demanded monthly reports and worked them over
was his watchword, and he put little effort into being polite when
he confronted muddled prose.
is clarity of the written word so vital?
Because only when you can express something clearly, in
writing, do you have it clearly in place in your mind.
If you can't reduce your ideas to writing, your future
investigative steps are unlikely to be selected with sufficient
(and public speaking, for that matter) require real effort—but
offer real paybacks. They
need clear organization and a degree of succinctness that does not
sacrifice completeness. Writing
therefore imposes a discipline that is difficult to obtain in any
other way. This
discipline makes writing and speaking unpopular, but I have no
doubt that they have positive effects.
Legions of former students remember Professor Taggart with
complaints in their mouths, but gratitude in their hearts.
When I required newsletters, written memoranda, and annual
reports from my staff, I noticed that the quality of these texts
improved over time. It
was partly due to practice, but I think it was largely due to
competition, pride, improved logic, and sense of accomplishment.
When it's written down well, there's a greater chance for
management to say, “Yes.”
results, not plans or justifications.
People love to speculate about what might be or what might
have been. A gullible
manager often listens raptly, and wonders only later where the
results are. This is
another reason why the “say yes” policy is so powerful. It
obviates complaints by researchers that they were prevented from
creating a marvelous output based on their initial ideas.
The responsibility remains with them to produce.
other words, listen to the person who says, “Look at what I've
discovered,” and ignore the one who says, “I need
mega-resources because I'm on the trail of a panacea.”
prime purpose of academic and industrial research is to produce
novel results—otherwise research is a pedestrian profession.
So why do virtually all managers put so much effort into
screening inputs, particularly into ensuring that the inputs
conform with pre-ordained covenants? I suspect that randomly selected inputs might yield as good
or better outputs--at least the logic of the system would be
better. So why not
final corollary is to encourage researchers to browse, in the most
general sense, via libraries, books, conversations with
colleagues, attending or giving seminars, or going to professional
meetings. I have
found some of my best ideas in bound periodicals, when I did not
restrict myself to the paper that was my initial interest.
To find the optimum path to an output, it's helpful to test
as many alternates as possible.
facilitation of browsing may help determine the optimum size of a
research organization. As
group size increases, the opportunities for browsing likewise
increase, but at a certain size, too many distractions arise.
Distractions include excess browsing, too many managerial
and administrative tasks, and too many side-line activities.
These distractions reduce the discretionary time available
to the researchers, thereby reducing the average output.
the option of browsing is, of course, another way of “saying
yes.” And “yes”
is often the fastest path to research results.