#5 from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 2          September, 1992

Managing, Juggling, or Fighting Fires?
by Craig Loehle, Ph.D.

Dr. Loehle is a mathematical ecologist at the Environmental Research Division, Argonne National Laboratory.  He is writing a book, Chaotic Science:  The Search for Pattern in Ecology.

Remember Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management?  Around the turn of the century, Taylor used a stopwatch in time-and-motion studies that revolutionized factory productivity.  In numerous industries, Taylor showed the shortest route from raw material and worker to product. 

Have you ever wished you had the assistance of somebody like Taylor, who could help you marshal your thoughts, employees, and equipment to maximize productivity?  If you're already thinking "Hogwash, it can't be done," I agree with you.  

Science, unlike manufacturing, retail, and service, is not amenable to simpleminded productivity strategies.   Although working harder or longer may increase the output of a truck driver or a bond trader, it may be counterproductive for a scientist.  For one thing, fatigue impairs the performance of complex intellectual tasks.  For another, a plowhorse mentality does not allow much time for creative thinking or divergent reading and thus may increase effort without producing anything useful.

To find strategies that will increase productivity, we must first recognize that research is a contingent process.  The dependence of each step on its predecessor introduces delays, for after reaching a certain stage we might need to find new equipment or repair existing equipment for the next analysis.  Or we might need to get material from a distant library or stop to ponder a puzzling result.

How can we maximize productivity from a process that's subject to frequent downtime and is fairly unpredictable to begin with?  The best strategy will depend on your research goals.  Various projects, priorities and reward systems may require utmost speed, maximum total output, or efficiency.


If we are pursuing a major discovery like superconductivity, or trying to be the first to capture a market, then the primary objective would be to shorten development time.  In such cases, I'd suggest the "firefighter strategy."  Have you noticed how firefighters wait around between fires, more or less idle, so they can respond instantly to an alarm?  A scientist using this strategy would focus on a single project.  To minimize downtime, she might walk procurement paperwork through the bureaucracy, use faxes and couriers, have equipment delivered overnight, and personally write reports or manuscripts.  

This strategy is expensive because it relies on quick services, and the scientist performs tasks that are normally assigned to clerical staff.  The inevitable delays mean that, however quickly the project is completed, the scientist is sometimes idle, but that, I think, is an inevitable tradeoff of speed for efficiency.


A different strategy, one I call "scientist-as-manager," might be optimal for a prominent, valuable scientist who can get sufficient funds.  Under this strategy, the leading scientist delegates routine tasks to subordinates, such as technicians, programmers, post-docs or clerical staff.  Specialization is usual in this strategy.  

With guidance from an effective senior scientist, the team approach can be quite successful at maximizing the exploration of the scientist's ideas.  There is some cost in efficiency because time may be lost in communication and coordination.  And if the team succeeds, it may grow so large that the chief scientist loses touch with the people who do the actual work.  If the team lacks adequate guidance, it may flounder, become less productive, and begin to ignore quality standards.  Scientific misconduct can arise in this type of situation.


Finally, there's the "juggler strategy," in which we work more or less simultaneously on several projects so there's something productive (including daydreaming and reading) to be done at all times.  While report A is in the typing pool, we work in the lab on project B.  While we wait for a reagent for project B, we shift to do part of experiment C.  

The mix of projects must be appropriate.  For example, if A, B, and C are all long experiments that run on the same equipment, it's unlikely that juggling will work.  But if A is a new experiment, B is an analysis of data from a previous experiment, and C is a literature review, then juggling may make sense.  

Users of the juggling strategy must be able to rapidly and repeatedly switch gears between projects.  Like real juggling, this strategy is easier for some people than others, but for anyone it becomes easier with practice.  If you adopt this strategy, I'd caution against a tendency to over-commit yourself.  Don't start so many projects that you can't finish them in a reasonable time.  

Although juggling does not minimize development time for any one project, it is efficient because it maximizes use of a scientist's time and can lead to the greatest output of high-quality work.   It is also inexpensive, since overnight deliveries, etc., are not needed.

Set Priorities

When using any of the research productivity strategies, I'd save time by setting priorities judiciously.  If each revision of a report requires five days in the typing pool, then I'd return my revisions to the typists as soon as possible.  If a sample analyses will take two months, I'd ship them out as quickly as I can.  These actions minimize delays due to my actions, even if they do not necessarily affect delays caused by outside factors.  

I see no single strategy that will increase research productivity in every case.  The best strategy will depend on one's objective: getting results as quickly as possible, maximizing total throughput, or maximizing efficient use of resources.  Obviously, the same scientist or the same laboratory could sensibly use one strategy now and another one tomorrow, when the task or situation changes.  

You should also take personality into account.  If you are easily distracted, it's probably best to concentrate on a single task.  If you are an adept manager, comfortable with people, perhaps you are a candidate for the scientist-as-manager.  

When it comes to R&D productivity, the stopwatch and clipboard that are so useful in the factory have only limited applicability.  As scientists, we must not only think well, but we must think about how we think. 

2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.