Tagged remove yourself

Are you available to your team?

When your group grows, two trends make being available to the team more difficult: you are more often gone from the lab, and an increasing number of team members multiplies the requests for your time. It can be difficult to find the balance between making yourself available, following your calendar, and getting your own stuff done.

availability


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book
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I recently interviewed candidates for a Postdoc position in my lab. One of the questions I ask is what the candidate expects of me as a supervisor. To my surprise, two candidates replied that they would like to get a response to email within 3 to 5 days. One of the candidates paused, looked out the window, and then carefully said: “Yes, that would be nice.”

Why it’s important to be responsive to your team

Advancing a science career not only brings with it a team that works for you. At the same time, we are more and more absent from the lab, sitting in administrative meetings, giving talks, visiting conferences, or finding some quiet to write.

As the head of my team, I hope that my team members will make the right decisions when I am not there. Yet, from the day to day experience in the lab, I know that there are often situations in which a PhD or Postdoc would ask my opinion if I were available. On the one hand, it’s nice if they don’t, and leave me to concentrate on the stuff I’m doing. On the other hand, it’s hard to know when it would actually be critical that I make a decision myself, and detrimental if the team member decided not to ask, fearing to disrupt my work.

First and foremost, not responding to a team member’s inquiry communicates that your priorities are elsewhere. People quickly feel disrespected, whether this is what you intend or not. Beyond that, holding off responses for several days can delay important work of the team, make you miss opportunities, or force your team members to make potentially disadvantageous, if not right-out wrong, decisions.

Some tools you can implement to help you being available

Even if availability appears unproblematic in your group right now, it could prove helpful to install some tools before your schedule becomes unexpectedly busy. Here are some ideas.

  • Regular meetings hold off ad-hoc disruptions. Many things don’t need to be solved at once; but they also can’t wait several weeks. Similarly, many potential questions are foreseeable. If you schedule short weekly meetings, or have open time slots that can be booked by your team, then you’ll have less interruptions during other times.
  • Make your cell phone number known. If you are regularly gone from the lab, give people the possibility to call you. If you don’t like to be called, you can ask to be notified by SMS when you are needed. This gives you the possibility to respond when you have time. If you won’t be reachable or don’t want to be called, let your team know.
  • Separate team email from other email. Email is one of the hells of today’s working world. I try to check email only twice a day, and have notifications turned off on all my devices. But when I open my Inbox, I can have a fear-inducing number of new email.
    • To prioritize your team, you can use the filter functions that most email apps provide. For instance, you can have email by your team members display in bold, or in a different color, so they pop out.
    • Organize your email notifications. Some email clients allow you to specify for which kind of email you want to be notified. For instance, Mac and iOS allow you designating your contacts as VIPs, for which you can set up separate notification rules.
    • You can set up a separate email address just for “emergencies”. Ask your team to use this email when it’s urgent. If you use this approach, consider turning on notifications for that account, and make sure you check it regularly.
    • An easier way might be to use keywords in email titles with your team. This combines well with filters. For instance, ask that urgent emails start with URGENT, and filter such emails to be displayed in a different color. To avoid spam being filtered incorrectly, you can use an additional keyword, for example your lab name’s abbreviation, e.g. MyLab URGENT. Keywords also help you scan for important email more generally. For example, it can be very helpful to always mention in the title the project the email is about.
  • Use Evernote for offline communication. My lab uses Evernote with notebooks shared by all project members. Following up on critical projects, or checking on a designated “what’s up” note in the project notebook relieves everyone from writing emails, and automatically documents the project progress.

It’s worth playing around with these different methods to find the combination that best works for you and your team. In my experience, putting these kinds of tools into place takes a bit of getting used to for everyone. Some people will tend to call too often; some not enough. Some feedback will help tuning.

What are your stuggles with availability? Have you found well-working solutions? Let us know in the comments!

Related Resources

Mashable has some helpful tips on filtering in Gmail.

Find out about how we use Evernote in the lab in my Evernote Hacks series.

I’ll write about regular meetings sometime, but until then, there’s some interesting stuff to learn in the Manager Tools Basics podcast. Look for posts about One-on-One meetings; also see their website. Warning: these guys talk a lot. Helpful. But lengthy.

Photo credit: KaylaKandzorra / Foter / CC BY

 


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

Remove yourself: start leading, stop micro-managing

When you were a PhD and Postdoc, you became an expert for the scientific methods you used for your research. Stepping up the career ladder as a group leader, you use your hands-on scientific expertise less and less, and your work is dominated by conceptual planning and team leadership. I’ve said before that the step from Postdoc to research group leader is very similar to that from expert to small business leader: the most important step of the entrepreneur is to remove himself from the everyday business.

remove yourself


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book
[about] [read more]


Any business depends on its owner – but, as Michael Gerber explains in his book The E-myth, often for the wrong reason!

Gerber explains that the biggest mistake small business owners make is that they stick to doing expert work, that is, the work they used to do so well that they decided to base their own business on it. This ties them up, and they aren’t free to do the work for which their business should really depend on them: leading and expanding.

As leader of your research group, you face the same challenge: to get stuck in the day-to-day research and to fail stepping up to steer. The solution is to systematically “remove yourself” from the research work. A weird thing to say, isn’t it? Yet, before I started leading my own research group, those who already did consistently told me that my work would change. So, rather than waiting until you can’t wait any longer, make it an explicit aim from the start: remove yourself.

3 reasons to remove yourself

Why would you consider to remove yourself? There’s at least 3 important reasons.

Your job description has changed

First and foremost, you now employ people who do the operative work. Your role in the group is to lead. Some of the tasks that come with being a group leader are rather obvious, such as making decisions and structuring everyone’s responsibilities. But maybe the more important part is that you now have to grow and develop your group. This means that you have to write and revise many more papers than before; decide when you need new people and new money, and write the grants for it; make sure that your team members develop new skills and expertise and coach them. You simply won’t have time for operative work anymore.

The idea of scale

In business, scale refers to doing more of the same simply by adding one more. One more McDonald’s. With one more set of employees who have exactly the same functions as those in all other McDonald’s franchises. Look at my post on Michael Gerber’s book, the E-Myth, which lays out the idea of scale for small businesses in more detail.

The idea of scale ports directly to your research group. It means that you have to make sure that you can get more research done by simply adding new people to the team. This will only be possible if the work in your lab does not depend on you. If you have to train every new lab member yourself, then there’s a tight limit to the number of new people that can join. If you have to invest significant time into every project that is running in your lab, then the number of projects is seriously limited.

Make your group sustainable even in times when you can’t be there

remove yourself – but stay in controlAs you climb up the career ladder, you’ll have more stuff going on outside the lab: talk and conference invitations, review boards, administrative meetings etc. You’d like to be sure that work gets done when you can’t be there.

You might find that writing and planning – of which you’ll presumably be doing more than before – is easier in other places than the office, and decide to work at home on some days.

And if you are planning to take a break from work or to reduce your working hours to raise children, this point is especially important. You’ll be much more calm about being gone if you know that your group’s work continues, and that you will be notified only when it doesn’t.

So why am I still here?

As the leader of your group, your main responsibility is to steer where the whole thing is going. Of course “removing yourself” cannot mean that you have nothing to do with your group anymore. It means that you stop doing the operative work that you used to do and for which you became expert during your PhD and Postdoc time. Yes, you drop all that to free yourself for a different kind of work: planning, expanding, guiding, supervising, thinking, and writing.

6 strategies to remove yourself

How can you set up your group in such a way that you can remove yourself? Although you want to be able to be gone, the research group is still your baby, and you have to be in control.

I’ll give a brief list of strategies, and pick each point up again in separate posts later on.

  • Delegate. The most obvious thing to do is to hand off as many tasks as you can to your team. Your work should be the things that a) only you can do, and b) you do best. This means that you have to hire the right people – those who can take over as much as possible of all other tasks. I’ve written about delegation here.
  • Templates, Workflows, and Instructions. Create documentation of the knowledge that is necessary to do the research right. I’ve posted about this here.
  • Create a group culture. When you aren’t there, then your team must make its own decisions. You would like those decisions to be the same ones you would have made yourself. The way to ensure that is to have a group vision and culture. If you and your team share the same priorities and values, then everyone will make compatible decisions. Development of a group culture requires explicit communication with the team.
  • Set up an organizational structure. It must be clear who is responsible for what; who can answer what questions; what kind of events may be handled entirely without you (and by who); and for what kind of things you want to be kept in the loop, or make the final decision. You can delegate some leadership roles to some of your group members, e.g. Postdocs. Make sure they know what you expect of them, and where their competence ends.
  • Set up communication. Make sure you can be reached. For example, hand out your mobile number, or have an emergency email address for your team that you check even when you don’t check other email. Everyone should know how to best forward information to you. There are many interesting options for team communication besides Email, such as Evernote, Slack, Gitlab, Google Docs, and Asana. I’ve posted on being available here.
  • Set up regular meetings. It is essential to have regular meetings with the group, and with each team member. Many business people recommend weekly One-on-Ones with individual teams members; I’ve found that this is good for new lab members, but can be too much later on.
What strategies are you using to remove yourself? Share it in the comments!

Photo credits: walking up stairs: Pexels; waving woman: Starbug / Foter / CC BY

Resources

I’ve mentioned Michael Gerber’s book, the E-Myth, in several posts, for example in my review of the book, and in The Scientist as an Entrepreneur.

Tim Ferriss has written a lot about the idea of removing yourself in his book, The 4-hour workweek. The book’s aim is rather different from this post’s, but it is full of thought-provoking ideas that can be used for our purposes.

 


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

Three ways to make sure knowledge stays in your group

I had a shocking experience recently. Within a week, my three PhD students all told me that they were thinking of leaving the group and going elsewhere when they’re done. Who’s going to do their work? And how??

When you started your group, things probably developed somewhat “naturally”. Without really planning for it, your group develops “a way we do things around here”.

Your group members know things you don’t

In my group, each PhD student has specialized beyond my own expertise. This means, they know more than I do. At least about the specific methods they are applying in our current experiments. In the beginning, I tried to keep up and learn with them. This started with technical things; for example, we use motion trackers to monitor movements of human participants. With my last grant, I had bought a new brand. Besides having to figure out the complicated setup, we had to re-write our Matlab code to control online measurements and data transfer. Today, I wouldn’t be able to run an experiment without the help of my PhDs.

But their knowledge monopoly doesn’t end with technical things. It continues with expertise about data analysis, experience in how data should look so that they are usable, and many other aspects of everyday scientific work.

So, when my three PhDs leave… well, I really don’t want to finish this sentence.

Document what your group is doing

People turn-over is high in science, with our short-term contracts on third-party funding, so my PhD disappearance problem is definitely not a one-time mishap. So, how can I retain the knowledge in my group? How can I make sure I consistently get similar quality in all the work done in my lab?

The answer is threefold: workflows, instructions, and templates. All three are types of documentation. Will you be surprised when I mention that I got these ideas reading business books?

Workflows

A workflow is a series of steps that have to be taken to complete some task. You can think big and small.

For a big example, in my group we’ve created a workflow for running an experiment. It has all the steps that need to be done from creating a standard folder structure; Evernote documentation folders; documentation of idea, goals, computer code; instructions about what steps must be discussed with me or in the group; …

For a small example, we have a workflow for giving a contract to a new student assistant.

So I can see you thinking: running an experiment? I don’t need written instructions for that! But have you ever tried to find a file in the idiosyncratic folder structure one of your PhDs came up with, because there weren’t defined places of where specific files should go? Have you ever forgotten to check the experimental setup before your master student started acquiring data, only to find later that there was a cardinal mistake in the setup?

Multiply these “accidents” by 10 when you have a new lab member. Multiply by 100 when your team changes completely.

And have I mentioned how much time you save when you don’t have to explain everything to the new guy yourself, but he can go to a document and only return to you with a couple of things he didn’t understand?

Instructions/lists

Document how things are done. For the new motion tracker I mentioned, my PhDs created detailed instructions about how to set it up. You can use photos, mark things on them, and make detailed lists. Seriously: the more detailed the instructions, the less will go wrong the next time someone new has to do it the first time.

Write lists for things that need to be done regularly. For example, we have a list of what all needs to be done when we clean the lab.

Templates

These are masks that you can use over and over. You can use templates in quite a few situations.

If you have to contact a lot of people, such as to recruit them for experiments, you can have email templates.

We have a set of templates for the consent forms our participants must sign before they can take part in our experiments. Every time someone starts a new experiment, all they have to do is get the doc and adjust a few lines.

There are ethical guidelines about what all you have to tell your participants when you instruct them for experiments. We have a template so that no one forgets any of the required info.

I’m sure you can think of more.

Nice. But we don’t have time for this.

My group didn’t love me for it when I introduced workflows and instructions. It’s extra work.

We were lucky, because we had documented here and there already in Evernote. Those documents weren’t always complete and up to date. But we could use them as a start.

Your documentation will build over time. You don’t have to do it over night – unless you wait too long, until your PhDs have one foot out the door. So start now – the earlier, the better. If you are starting a new group, ask your group members to create re-usable workflows from the beginning, and then use them the next time they do the same task. Then they can revise and optimize them continuously with little extra effort.

Making it a priority to document all your lab’s best practices in is central to retaining knowledge in your group.

Does your group document workflows, instructions, and templates? If not, then why? What other things do you document? Use the comments section to let us know!

Resources

Michael Gerber takes documentation to the extreme in his book, The E-Myth Revisited. His point is that the more everything is standardized by documentation, the easier it is to scale, that is, have someone do the same thing again elsewhere, because you don’t have to be there yourself to make it happen. The classic example is a franchise. Every McDonald’s is the same. Obviously, not really what we want in research. But it’s worth looking at what all you can at least consider to document and standardize.

Michael Hyatt suggests using email signatures to create templates for replies you repeat often. Instead, you can use tools like TextExpander that paste arbitrarily long and complex text when you type a shortcut.

This article in PC Magazine has a long list of tips about how to write good workflows.

A picture is worth 1,000 words. If you need to document a lot of stuff on-screen, then Skitch might help; it integrates with Evernote. But there are plenty of other solutions, such as Clarify-it and Jing.

There are some fancy (but rather pricey) online tools to create pretty workflows. But a txt file, Word doc, or my favorite, Evernote, will do.

 


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

The scientist as an entrepreneur

In this post, I’ll suggest that as science leaders, we should view ourselves as business owners. Weird? Yuck? Read on…

For many of us, the decision for science was, at the same time, a decision against going into the business world.

And yet, we experience all the time that many business aspects leak into our science world. Getting funding has long become a big competition, and so we try to market our ideas in our grants Salaries include variable, success-oriented components. Our quality as researchers is largely evaluated by quantitative measures like the number of publications we have authored. Funding agencies want us to include real life applications and science-to-business transfer in our grants. I’m sure you can name more.

Enter the entrepreneur…

Many of these business aspects have a negative connotation for us. But I will make the point that there is a connection between science and business that we should embrace: as lab leaders, we are entrepreneurs, and we can deduct lots of ideas from this comparison for our lab management.

What’s an entrepreneur? According to Investopedia, it’s someone “who, rather than working as an employee, runs a small business and assumes all the risk and reward of a given business venture, idea, or good or service offered for sale. The entrepreneur is commonly seen as a business leader and innovator of new ideas and business processes.” These are people who have a vision and a purpose, and who go to great lengths to make a dream reality.

I know it sounds a bit flowery. But still, many of us scientists aren’t any different. We lead our group in trying to gain rewards through more or less risky scientific work. More than anything, we are innovators of new ideas.

…and so what?

Why do I think that the analogy of a science group leader as an entrepreneur is important?

It’s because we face a lot of the same challenges. In his book The E-Myth (also see my post on this book), where E stands for Entrepreneur, Michael Gerber explains how most entrepreneurs start out as “technicians” – experts with some specific know-how (= end of PhD, beginning of PostDoc). At some point, the technician decides he wants to be his own boss and starts his own company (= first grant, first professorship).

Now the technician must become an entrepreneur. He must stop doing technical work, and begin to develop his company, to lead. Gerber calls it working on the business rather than in the business. As scientists, we usually no longer “do the science ourselves”, but lead others in doing it. Our task is now to develop ideas about where we should search next, and to acquire the necessary funding for our research to expand and our group to grow.

Once you see how similar the challenges of a small business owner are to the challenges you face as the leader of a science group, the next logical step is to find out how small business owners attack their everyday hassles. And internet and libraries are full of advice for entrepreneurs! I’ve found many interesting and worthwhile strategies and tactics that can be transferred to the science world.

Not everything. Not always one to one. But many things, and often with surprisingly little adjustment. We’ll look at some of them in posts to come.

Do you see commonalities between business owners and yourself? What are your reservations about the analogy? Leave a comment below!

Resources

I’ve posted about Michael Gerber’s book, “The E-Myth Revisited”. You can check it out here.

Michael Gerber gives a quick intro about his ideas in a ~20 min podcast (www/iTunes).

 


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

Book: The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber

This book about how entrepreneurs can build a successful and scalable business has lots of insight for a science team leader.

book cover emyth

Michael Gerber’s book, The E-Myth Revisited, has been an eye-opener for me.

At first sight, it has nothing to do with a science group. Gerber talks about new small business owners, and how they screw up and fail within the first few years of their endeavor. And then about what they can do to succeed with their business.

The key idea of the book is that the job of a business owner is very different from the job of a specialist. But before becoming their own boss, most small business owners are specialists, and then attempt to build their own business based on their expertise. They then make the mistake of doing the same as they did before – being a specialist – instead of becoming the head of their new business.

Why does that matter to a scientist?

You’ve probably realized now why the book is relevant to a science leader: we basically go the same path. First, we are specialists. Then, we become group leaders – boss of our very own “small business”. The big mistake we can make is to not fill that leading role, and instead try to continue being a specialist.

The two points I find most important in Gerber’s book are, first, that you have to build a vision about what you actually want your business to be. The second point is that you have to systematically remove yourself from the everyday work of your business. Of course, you don’t disappear, but your planning and actions have to follow this ultimate goal: to be free of the operative work, so that you can shape the business.

I’ve written more on the idea of removing yourself and porting Gerber’s ideas from a small business to a science lab in a blog post, Remove yourself: how to be free for leading without losing control. Suffice it to say, although the book reads a bit cheesy, it provides lots of food for thought.

Check out the book here.

If you’ve read the book, post your comments below!

Check out more book reviews!