Project Management in Science
Imagine you are decorating a room. There is large sofa, and you have some throw pillows decorating it, but it looks a little bare, so you get some more. And some more. And some more. How many is too many? 5? 20? 65? Like cupcakes or party invitations, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. This applies to collaborative teams as well.
The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick), by Seth Godin. Pub 2007
I was led to this brief book via this article. I'm dealing with some team issues at work (people leaving), and I am struggling to understand the choices that people are making. I wasn't (seriously) looking at quitting myself, but to make sense of why others were. The article didn't really help with that, but I was intrigued by the idea that smart people can realistically rationalize quitting, so I picked up this book. I'd read a few blog posts and articles (mostly in Fast Company) by Seth Godin, and a few books by the illustrator Hugh McLeod, so I was expecting something pretty good, if not great. Sadly, I was disappointed.
Like so many books in this genre, a good idea or interesting concept is written about in a shouty, folksy way, initially intended to both shake up the reader's thinking and get them comfortable with the notion that the writer is speaking to them, and then the horse is flogged repeatedly (albeit inconsistently) for many pages until one feels like they don't remember or care about the original concept, they just want to get away from this person. It feels like being in a professional development seminar in a room that is too small to sneak out of, and you're regretting having sat in the front row as the presenter is always looking right at you.
Essentially, understanding The Dip means recognizing and evaluating the cost-benefit to yourself of sticking with a course of action or quitting/changing it. The simple examples are things like waiting in a line for something. When the queue is taking longer (much longer) than you expected, and time is running out or your thinking about all the other things you need to do, the tendency is to consider quitting as a waste of the time already spent - and so you stay in the line (you stick). But at this point - in The Dip - the suggestion is that you shouldn't give as much weight to that, as you cannot recover that "investment" but look ahead and consider the cost-benefit of walking out of the line right then. The trick is to look only at now and the future, and consider things like what else you could be accomplishing/directing your energies to, the real value of the thing you're working towards, and a recalculation of how much you have left to do or wait, and ask "is it worth it for what I'm trying to achieve?" Now replace "grocery line" with job, relationships, hobby, any endeavour, and that's the concept.
In general, I'm in favour of philosophies that encourage thinking about the choices we make as people and acknowledging and accepting the consequences of those choices. Don't want to train everyday and manage your diet carefully and endure aches and pains and inclement weather and expensive gear? Then choosing "world champion triathlete" as your goal is not realistic, or likely to be satisfying. As Godin says (somewhere amidst all the shouting), BEING a CEO looks easy, but BECOMING a CEO takes work, luck, and endurance through the Dip, and recognizing that the energy needed to meet that goal means you have to choose to direct yourself away from (quit) other things to focus on getting beyond the CEO dip.
The Dip does tackle an element that often tricks people: the joy of starting something new. Whenever we take on something new - hobby, sport, job, relationship, resolution - the beginning part is always somewhat easy or enjoyable. The first few classes at the gym in our new sport or exercise feel wonderful, and we're excited by how this new thing makes us feel. We see our potential in this, and the potential for it to be come important and transformative. The first few weeks in a new job are all about meeting new people and learning new things, seeing how we might make an impact here - all of these are exhilarating. And then the honeymoon ends. "The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery." Even if you enjoyed those first few weeks at the running club, the podium at Ironman is still a long way away, and continuing to train is no guarantee that you'll get there.
This idea of quitting something to make room for something else is anathema to those who say "you can have it all", but is to me just common sense (and also physics - there is literally only so much of me to go around). One can almost see this as a variation on the Serenity Prayer, or the Tuckman model of group development. Or of this strangely motivational demotivational slogan.
Anyway, a lot of words about a book I didn't especially enjoy, but the message and concepts are definitely worth considering. The original NYT article does a better job covering this concept than the book did.
So in the immortal words of Kenny Rogers:
You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away, and know when to run…
…the secret to surviving
Is knowin’ what to throw away, and knowin’ what to keep
‘Cause every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser…
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.