Going from Idea to Implementation Takes New Skills

I am a scientist by training. That training taught me the importance of ideas. The mythology of science emphasizes creative ideas, “Eureka!” moments, and brilliant insights. This is not wrong, but it is incomplete. Even the best idea is worthless if it is not implemented.

My scientific training taught me some things about implementing ideas. I learned lab techniques and I learned about how to extend those techniques. I even learned a bit about how to develop new techniques.

But I did not learn about how to coordinate a group of people or ensure the best use of scarce resources. I did not learn about how to plan out work so that expensive machines and even more expensive people do not sit idle, waiting for the previous step in a process to complete – or worse, break down or burn out under the strain of long periods of overbooking. I did not learn about managing group dynamics so that a project team will “gel” and become a high-functioning team and not just a group of people working on related things.

I eventually learned these things after leaving academia. Even then, my education was somewhat haphazard. I often learned more by negative example than by actual guidance. I learned from observation that internal competition is a terrible way to motivate a team and that even basic research benefits from having a roadmap.

I’d like to pretend that I recognized this important hole in my training and sought to fill it. The truth is less heroic. After being laid off during a downturn in my industry, I started to look for career options in other industries, and was hired to work on a genomics project at a contracting company.  They weren’t sure what to do with me once my initial project completed, so they made me into a project manager. 

That company gave me training in the management of projects and people, some of which was even useful. Still, I fought the change for quite awhile. I wanted to do things, not manage them! I had absorbed the negative opinion of management that permeates the sciences, and I suspect much of academia. 

That negative opinion is not entirely undeserved. Management is often done by people with even less training than I had, and whose instincts for it are frankly terrible. You can have a brilliant scientific mind and be a terrible manager. Even worse, you can have a brilliant scientific mind and be a mediocre manager- good enough that no one bothers replacing you, but bad enough to do a lot of damage.

Over the years, I came to appreciate the importance of my new role. I was brought in as project manager on a floundering project that was in danger of being canceled and was able to get it back on track so that it not only met its goals for the year but was also funded for the next year. After that experience, I began to own the title of “project manager” a bit more. I started reading about project management methods, and conducting more conscious experiments in my own work. I developed opinions about how to run a project, and was gratified to see the success of my projects validate some of those opinions.

Later, I got to build and lead teams working on a range of projects, and this time I eagerly expanded my self-identification to include program management and the management of people. I took the latter very seriously and read up on how to manage people. I was happy to learn that the methods that seem to work best aligned with my own values of putting people first and working to ensure that they are able to enjoy a life outside of work. I also began to recognize the systematic underpinnings of many of the management problems I needed to solve and read about different ways to address those. 

I will always be learning about management now. I can’t stop. I am fascinated by the complexity of the problems and motivated by the knowledge that as important as creative ideas are, the ability to implement them is crucial. I enjoy the challenge of focusing on problems for which there is rarely a single “right” answer and embrace the realization that each problem has to be analyzed and addressed within its unique context. 

As I learned more about management, I could look back at some of the problems I faced earlier in my career— even back in graduate school— and see how an understanding of some basic management principles would have helped me solve them. I also began to appreciate the overlap between principles of personal productivity and methods for managing teams and projects. 

If you are like I was and are suspicious of anything that smells like management, I urge you to reconsider. You can avoid learning about it, but you can’t really avoid doing it, particularly if you lead a team or collaborate with others. In fact, I now apply some management methods even to projects I am completing alone. Learning to do management well will allow you to get more work done with less stress on yourself and your team members. It can also allow you to tackle bigger, more complex projects, both on your own and with others.  

One of the wonderful things about deciding to take management seriously is that starting small can deliver large dividends. The initial steps are as simple as reading an article or two, trying the ideas this gives you and observing how they impact you, your team, and your projects. Some of my future posts will discuss management principles I find particularly helpful, but if you are ready to start now, there are plenty of other management articles to read. Just remember to read with a critical eye, and filter the ideas through your own sense of what will and won’t work in your situation. There is no such thing as universal management advice. That is one reason that management is a continually interesting area in which to work.

This is a repost of an article I originally wrote for Chronicle Vitae back in 2015. I wrote articles about management (project, people, time…) and other related topics for them for a couple of years. They have taken the section in which my articles were published offline, and so I am reposting the articles I wrote for them.

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