I recently read the book Breakthrough, by Thea Arthur and Arthur Ainsberg. It is the story of the discovery of insulin and its initial production for use to treat diabetics, told partly via the story of Elizabeth Hughes, one of the children saved by the discovery. My scientific background is in biochemistry, so I was well aware of what happened to diabetics before the discovery of insulin, but even so, there were some heartbreaking passages in the book.
As a scientist, it was also a bit heartbreaking to read about the infighting and lack of collaboration in the team that discovered insulin. Heartbreaking, but not really surprising. Scientists are human, after all, and everyone knew what credit for this discovery would mean. If you put a group of smart, ambitious people together on a high stakes project and spend little to no effort on actually managing that project… in a way, I’m surprised that the project finished as well as it did.
The story of the insulin discovery team is by no means unique, except perhaps in the fact that the project still succeeded. I suspect most people who have worked in science for more than a few years can think of examples of promising projects sunk by teams that just could not work together. Heck, I can think of one or two companies whose demise was almost certainly precipitated or at least accelerated by this problem.
And yet, we don’t hear much about the solution to this problem, beyond vague exhortations that scientists should put aside their differences in pursuit of the greater good. Amazingly, many times, they do. There are still discoveries to be made and patients to be saved. Thinking of that greater good can often be motivating enough to enable people to swallow their hurt, shrug off the insults, slights, and worries about their own future and put their heads down and keep working. I know this because I have done it myself.
However, I think that is a hugely suboptimal solution. The extra stress and cognitive load it takes to continually squelch your entirely reasonably and human reactions to a poorly managed situation is certainly harmful to the scientist. I would argue that it is likely to be harmful to the project, as well. Simply put, happier teams are generally more productive. (Yes, there is research to support that. Here’s some. I’ll probably dig up more for a future post.)
The problem is, most scientific teams are managed by scientists, and most scientists have no training in management. Frankly, a lot of scientists have no respect for the need to manage and actively avoid learning even the most basic tenets of managing projects and people.
I don’t really blame individual scientists for this. We work in a culture that puts technical and scientific prowess above all else. We assume that if someone is a good, smart scientist he or she will be a good manager. We assume that managing is the easy part.
Over the course of my career, I’ve done science, I’ve created software, and I’ve managed people and projects. Perhaps managing is the easy part for some people, but I’ve never met any of those people. The management problems I’ve faced have been by far the most challenging problems. Luckily, solving management problems has also been among the most rewarding things I’ve done in my career.
Rich Armstrong wrote a powerful post that almost exactly reflects my thinking on why management is important and rewarding– and why it needs to be valued in our companies and in our labs. The culture of disregarding or outright disrespecting management skills has led to an environment in which bad management flourishes, which feeds directly back into the culture of disrespecting management skills. It is a vicious cycle, but I am an optimist, so I believe it can be interrupted. We just need to want to interrupt it.
I hope you will go read all of that Rich Armstrong post, but in case you don’t, here is a quote from it that is particularly apt. It is advice given to him by a trusted family friend:
“I’ve always thought that the hardest and most valuable thing in work is to get a group of smart people to work together toward a common goal.”
I’ve managed people for roughly a decade, and projects for a few years more than that. I’ve learned a lot about management over those years, but there is always more to learn. I’ve started this blog to help me keep learning. Perhaps I can gather some other interested people, too, and together we can learn more, faster. If I convince even one person that the path to faster discoveries is through better management, not more noble sacrifice, I will consider this a huge success. In the biomedical sciences, it is common to motivate teams by saying “patients are waiting.” Yes, they are. So lets learn how to work together more effectively and efficiently, already.