from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 2
Managing, Juggling, or Fighting
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.
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
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
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.
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.