I was given this book by a friend after a conversation that included two loosely connected facts about me:
Point number 1 has developed through my work with a coach over the past year. I recognized that my thinking - and by extension my leadership - is sometimes less creative and flexible than I'd like. This recognition came out of some other conversations about my imagination or lack thereof, and some failed attempts at creative writing. I therefore resolved to try to engage the creative side of my brain through other writing - in other words, blogging. And thus was this blog born, or more accurately resurrected in its current form here.
Point number 2 has always been a characteristic of me. Despite the fact that I truly love to read, I am very slow, requiring several days of vacation - where hours are devoted to reading without distraction - to get through a novel or book of barely 300 pages. And so another future resolution: to learn to read faster.
Which brings me back to the topic of this post: the book Ignore Everybody. It perfectly addresses both of my challenges. The book describes 40 keys to creativity (point number 1) in very short chapters with illustrations (point number 2). I've now read the book twice, the second time with post-it notes to flag my favourite keys, some of which were familiar to me, already being a part of my beliefs, and others which were revelatory. The best ones to me included:
The book is not for everyone. The abrupt style of writing and direction (and the occasional profanity) will be off-putting to some. And the book focuses a lot on writing/drawing with the outcome of being published as the main experience. But those characteristics are in keeping with the very keys the author is getting at - being himself, working hard, and taking advantage of successes and opportunities. I recommend this read to folks already doing something in the creative realm, and also to others looking for keys to getting started.
This BBC article and the accompanying comments exemplify the complex relationship most people have with their work email. In addition to being the communication tool that was intended to be, email and how one manages it now have the added elements of reputation, performance, ownership and personality to contend with. Email has also expanded its role from communication to be a filing and archive system, a reporting tool, and a time management system. But it is a tool and not a master, and it should be something that we manage, not something that manages us.
As a communication tool, email can function as both a messenger and a communication channel. Email "conversations" can take the place of (albeit not perfectly) verbal or face-to-face dialogue. A key difference is in the documentation, which allows for clarity (but can also create misunderstanding) and posterity (emails live forever). The email trail captures the words that were written, but sometimes miss the context or framework of the conversation or issue. Also, email cannot capture the other elements often essential to communication - tone of voice, demeanour, gestures and humour cannot be captured in the text of an email. Essential to using email well is to take a "just the facts" approach. Document and include only information, data and language that could be understood by anyone reading it, not just the intended recipient. This doesn't mean dumbing-it-down, or writing in code. Apply the three C's - clear, concise, complete (3C) - to help ensure that an email is understood, that you get the answers you need, and that you provide answers and information in the most effective way.
Writing 3C emails and responses well and in a timely manner can help meet those other email objectives of performance and reputation. The perception sometimes is that a quick response is best, in order to show that you are on top of things or are someone who has all the knowledge and information required. If the real reason you're responding to that email at midnight is to show that you're always working, then don't. This does not enhance your performance or reputation - it just ruins your sleep. It creates the expectation that you will ALWAYS be available (which, trust me, you don't want). It can also give you the reputation as the team all-ogist - the person who always has to get their oar in, even when it has nothing to do with them (a variation on this is the person who speaks up at meetings about every agenda item regardless of its or their relevance to the topic).
Before leaping to reply or reply all, consider how, and even whether, to respond.
Careful writing also considers the audience, and the unwritten messages that are being sent. When writing or replying to a group, keep emails professional. Be polite. Eliminate or minimize use of slang or colloquialism, and emphases such as multiple exclamation points and emoticons should be avoided (anything that resembles how you might write a text message should be saved for non-work communication). Remember that emails become part of project documentation, so they should be professional and 3C as often as possible.
As for holiday email management, it is usually not possible to completely unplug from email or other work communications. As a project manager, you have a responsibility to your projects that transcends the 8/5 schedule. But you can implement strategies to keep disruptions to a minimum and limited to actual emergencies. Prior to going away, let key team members know that you'll be away; they may get tired of the reminders of your pending vacation, but they can't claim it was a surprise when it actually happens. Establish rules for yourself and the key personnel in your teams and projects for how you will deal with emails while away. For me, I first establish a schedule of when or how often I will even check emails - usually every 3-4 days. I have two or three people whose emails I will read or scan when I check my email. And I will read any email that is indicated as "URGENT" in the subject line (not just the ones marked as "high importance", as this is another often misused tool in email). When I return to work, I review all emails from my time away, address any outstanding questions and issues, and support the decisions and actions taken in my absence. If I stick to these rules, and so do the folks in my teams and projects, we all get what we need - they get my input when needed, as well as the opportunity to work independently for a bit, and I get a restful vacation.
I'm occasionally asked about how to become a project manager (and sometimes about how to become a good one, which is the better question). Usually these questions come from someone looking to make a transition from some other role in research (sometimes from a trainee looking balefully ahead to a life as a PI, casting about for a more palatable alternative), but sometimes also from someone inquiring about our team and how it came together and works so well. Here's a brief and non-comprehensive list of the things I think are the most important characteristics of a good project manager in research:
It would be great in the research project management world to have the capacity (and the funding, of course) to allow us to engage interns or trainees, but in the research world it is not conceivable these days to spend funding on much of anything that is not supporting the science. What we have been able to develop is a Jedi-like approach to the team structure, where newer staff are paired with one or more veterans to help learn the ropes and learn through doing and observing. And perhaps a Borg-like collective of knowledge that makes the whole better than any individual part.
I've been in this environment for over 10 years now, and one thing I've learned - every season is grant season. While the spring and fall have the majority of the fixed deadlines, RFAs, PAs and other special announcements from various funders introduce additional deadlines at random times of the year. There are also those grants that require peer review panel presentations, the ones with mulitple levels of application (the LOI, followed by the full application, followed by the "opportunity" to submit supplemental info), and the ones with extensive post-award pre-launch processes that make for much scrambling around on short notice - made all the more intense by the allure of the almost-funding. Once you have the grant, the deadlines just continue, with reporting requirements, meetings, advisory boards, interim reviews. And those are just on the science side. On the admin side, there is also the perpetual prospect of an audit that might suddenly appear on the horizon.
Ultimately, what it means is that every season is grant season. It also means some other things:
We all recognize that there are a few laws applicable to the world of grant writing:
What does all that mean? It means that there is always something to be done, that the best laid plans will often go awry, and that change is just as certain as the rain in Vancouver. A project manager's life is therefore not for those who thrive on completion, or for the faint of heart who can't endure the last minute deadline. But is for those who enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of enabling and contributing to the most fascinating research around.
I read almost daily the observations and ruminations of others in the genomics and scientific fields, and thought perhaps someone somewhere might be interested in the perspective of a non-scientist imbedded in a scientific environment. I work within a large genome centre in Canada, and over the past 11+ years, we have established a team of project managers and coordinators, working with our PIs and collaborators to manage project and research activities, including facilitating grant applications, planning budgets and schedules, report writing and compilation, and just about anything else required to support successful projects.
While there are many people at other institutions that support researchers in their project and grant endevours, I've found that our team here is unique in both its structure and role within the centre. We are neither strictly research administrators nor grants facilitators, but do fulfill those roles in part when required for our projects. Our primary role is to manage the projects, taking responsibility for communications, cost, schedule and scope management. We don't DO the research - we ENABLE the research.
I feel extremely fortunate to have found myself within a centre that truly values the contributions of project managers to the research activities. I get to work in a dynamic, intense, fun, and rewarding place to be, and I'm proud to be a part of what we do here.
My aim with this blog is to share my experiences and lessons learned, as we continue to manage projects within our research environment. Things like strange encounters with PIs, challenges with funding agency rules, frustrations with submissions, and the day-to-day successes and oddities of this line of work.
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 leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.