#44 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 7          July 1993

The First Principle of Research Management—Say Yes!
by John J. Gilman, Ph.D.

Dr. 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).

My 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.

At 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.

Once, 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.

Research 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. 

In 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. 

Seek Talent

Saying yes may be necessary, but it is not sufficient for effective management.  What 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.

The first corollary is to seek talent.  Without 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.

How 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 references.)

To 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. 

Fit the Job to the Individual

Thus 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.

Perhaps 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.

When 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 money. 

What 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.

Shank 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!

Write it Down!

You 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.

While 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 pitilessly.  Clarity was his watchword, and he put little effort into being polite when he confronted muddled prose.

Why 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 critical thought. 

Writing (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.”

Reward Results

Reward 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.

In 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.”

The 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 “say yes?” 

Browsing

A 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. 

The 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.

Allowing the option of browsing is, of course, another way of “saying yes.”  And “yes” is often the fastest path to research results.

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