Scenario: you’re writing a proposal, and the funding agency (or client or sponsor) website says that the submission deadline is 5pm EDT Monday 31 August. But your project manager has said that your deadline is noon on Thursday 27 August. What the heck? Why do you have to complete it four days before it’s due? What if you really need the weekend to fine-tune the meat of the proposal? Can’t you give it to them at noon on Monday?
After a dozen or so years of working with scientists on grant applications and proposals, I’ve learned a great deal about the ways they work and their needs for time to make their great science look and sound great on paper. Having tried (and failed) several times to write grants myself, I know there is great art within that science, and so my mission as a project manager remains: enable the best possible science and more of it.
I’ve also learned, and hopefully have demonstrated, that there is method to the madness of setting deadlines for proposal projects. The method aligns with the mission – enabling the science – by making it possible for the proposal to actually be submitted. Which means that the funder deadline is not our deadline.
Deadline is actually a horrible word, when you consider its definition:
deadline (n): 1. A line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot. 2. a date or time before which something must be done.
It is no surprise then that deadlines rarely have the feel of incentive. But the modern use of the term seems odd – if I were a prisoner in such a prison, I would be staying as far away from the deadlines a possible, never mind meeting them.
Considering the quadruple constraint (scope-time-cost-quality), it’s also not surprising that deadlines quickly become a thing in projects – and a proposal is a project. Defining those boundaries is essential to planning and managing successfully. However, deadlines can quickly take over as being goal or objectives themselves, when really they are just another milestone – a point in the project to measure progress – only at the deadline milestone, estimate to completion should be zero. Milestones are tools for good project time management, but like any tool they only work well when applied appropriately. Part of using them appropriately is distinguishing between the real and the artificial.
Real deadlines are more often imposed by an external entity, such as the funder, but can also be internal to a department or institution. But, they are only real if they’re also firm – as in, there are real consequences for not meeting them. Real deadlines look like this:
They will also typically have specific scope and quality requirements, too. The above deadline requires that the complete proposal in the correct format with all the required elements is submitted BEFORE the deadline. These are as close to the original definition of deadline as we get in the research management world. Missing a real deadline can be pretty devastating.
Artificial deadlines are usually internal or self-imposed. They are more accurately called milestones, as they are (or should be) established within a timeline to enable all the participants to be able to do what is required to meet the real deadline. Unfortunately, because these are self-determined, they are often seen as more flexible and can be ignored or overruled if one part of the team falls behind schedule.
This is what I refer to as “the peril of the deadline extension”. Teams and leaders can very quickly undermine their plans and put their success at risk by extending internal deadlines. By allowing these internal milestones to be moved or circumvented, the project schedule closest to the real deadline becomes compressed, often to the point where success is now nearly impossible. Scope and quality are sacrificed to time, as the precious “last minute” becomes the last 30-seconds, giving insufficient time to deal with unforeseen hurdles.
There are a myriad of things that have to happen with a proposal to get it submitted, and while some sound trivial, they can be enormously time consuming. Converting a document to PDF should, in theory, take very little time and work the first time you do it. However, as anyone in science can appreciate, things that sound like they should work often don’t work out exactly right the first time (cell lines, anyone?).
There are more complex elements to proposal completion as well, such as: aligning other proposal pieces (budget, team description, management plan) to the aims; confirming references and citations in the proposal are correct (and in the correct order and format; checking page and character limits. Many of these things are done in parallel with the main proposal writing, but they must be re-confirmed prior to submission. Since everything else in the proposal links to the science piece, nothing else can be completed until that is done.
And so the proposal deadline becomes a few days to a week in advance of the funder deadline. The project manager sets this deadline to minimize the risk that the submission will be unsuccessful due some kind of administrative issue. Believe or not, the deadlines and milestones are not set to be maximally inconvenient – they are set to maximize the chances of a successful submission.
There is an intrinsic benefit to these internal milestones as well. Without a boundary for time, teams and writers can sometimes get stuck in analysis paralysis – the project stops moving forward while the team analyses all the possible angles and options. This endless rumination (“we should all go away and think about how best to do this”) will happen without some firm date by which decisions must be made and things completed. By ensuring that necessary decisions get made in a timely manner, all elements of the project can proceed towards completion.
A recent piece that I read brought up some interesting points about deadlines. This author asserts that there are two challenges with deadlines: they force decisions to happen within a given timeframe, sacrificing quality to time and they create a disincentive to revisit a process or project once it’s completed, as people will have “project fatigue” from having worked within a challenging timeline, and be unwilling to look at it again once it’s done. While these challenges are likely when deadlines are arbitrary or poorly planned, well-placed project milestones can encourage LEAN thinking by making time a key element in the project, and they can encourage more thorough risk assessment in project planning and better break-testing and change management processes in project implementation so that returns to the past don’t happen but continuous improvement does.
So deadlines are not the enemy – poor project planning and time management is. Well planned and placed milestones enable projects to be successful by ensuring that the project team keeps track of what they’re doing, where they’re at, and what the true project objectives are. Meeting the deadline is not an objective. Completing the project successfully – the full scope of work to the required quality within the time allowed without breaking the bank – is the goal.
Don’t believe me? Check out what NIH has to say: first-time applications (i.e. not re-submissions) submitted ON the due date are TWO TO FOUR TIMES more likely to ultimately miss the submission deadline than those submitted one week ahead of the deadline.
Last week, I was away on vacation. A whole week away, in an area with no cell phone coverage, so I was completely cut-off from work and email. No, this is not a horror story. Nor is it a post about life balance. It’s about workplace culture.
This recent article on productivity - which is really more of a teaser for the book being promoted - includes a summary of some research on workplace cultures and management styles that promote productivity in various ways. The researchers determined that there are five culture styles, and then concluded that one of these was best for productivity.
In any of these lists and assessments, there is always something that doesn’t quite fit properly, and this one is no different. To me, there are elements of each style that, correctly implemented with other good management approaches, can work well:
The researchers concluded that the commitment style outperformed the others. However, a team or organization that does ONLY this will likely have very happy employees but a very poor bottom line. So applying and implementing the right substance rather than the right style makes more sense.
Culture – in a workplace, a community, or society at large – is a reflection of the people that make it, incorporating elements of their demographics, needs, goals, resources, and location. Therefore, leaders cannot make the culture. Leaders can influence it, by shifting some of the elements, exemplifying best practices, and contributing to and learning from the rest of the group.
I’m reluctant to make or take a prescription for the right culture. Moreover, I don’t think culture can be made-to-order. My role as a leader requires that I try to create an environment that enables each and all of the team members to perform at their best, feel empowered to make decisions and take action, and learn from each other and from their experiences. The culture will develop and evolve based on the group and their experiences, becoming something they all believe in and contribute to – something they own.
So, back to my vacation. No phone, no email. What happened? Absolutely nothing. In the time that I was gone, the team took actions and made decisions, got into trouble (not much) and then got themselves out of it, had some successes and some set-backs, and got stuff done. When I got back, everyone was still there – the same happy, productive, professional, collaborative bunch as when I left.
That’s our culture. It (hopefully) meets the needs of the team members who create it and contribute to it. The culture doesn’t have a name, and is not something that could be copied or recreated anywhere else. And why would anyone want to? No environment or team is exactly the same as ours. So while there are some elements of it that could desirable for another team, like in the list above, no single model can be determined as best in all circumstances.
Imagine you have to lift something heavy – a box of books or small kitchen appliances. You crouch down, get a good grip, maybe make a small partial lift to get a sense of the weight (wow, heavier than you thought). Then you stand up with the box (lifting with your legs and not your back, of course). Ta-da! You adjust your feet a bit, and get used to the balance (the box is a bit heavier on one side, and the contents move around a bit), and try to get comfortable. After a few minutes you put the box down.
If that box was your project, you might say, "All done. Next!". But if that box was your team or your organization, success is more than just picking it up once. You have to be able to stand with it for a long time - for as long as it's your responsibility. You have to keep holding it when someone comes along and rummages around it in, looking for their copy of War and Peace or that attachment to the blender that they need for crushed ice. You have to keep it level and stable when another person (or project or team) balances a glass of water or vase of flowers on top (they should come back and get it eventually, but until then...). And at some point, you have to pass that box to someone else, ideally without putting down.
You have to hold it up for a good long while, adapt to change, take on new things, and pass it on when your time is through. Success means sustaining.
Sustainability is defined as, “the ability to maintain or support an activity or process over the long term.” It’s more local than environmental sustainability (although definitely related), and less about the bottom line than business sustainability. Team sustainability is about building a environment of successful people working interdependently in a valid, empowered and proactive way to keep the team working well regardless of who’s holding the box.
I came to this topic through work with my coach, and exploring a new-to-me approach called The Bigger Game®. A very quick review of it and I was asked to pick the element that seemed the most immediately relevant to me. Bingo – sustainability: having a lasting impact.
As I look ahead in my own career, sustainability is part of my big game. For me, this means working to make myself unnecessary – creating a team and organizational environment that is empowered and challenged, and can sustain and validate itself through the interdependent work of the teams and leaders of the present and future. In other business lingo, this is part of succession planning and that’s a bit true for me (still a few years left yet, but never too early to start planning). More immediately I’m working to ensure that we challenge and grow in our teams for the near to medium term, so the great things we're already doing can continue as part of our processes and culture, and keep enabling great things to happen.
In an innovative research department, a leading-edge technology environment, sustainability is sometimes seen as incompatible with success; to succeed, pushing the envelope is essential. Sustainability is also essential in an environment where risks are a part of the game. If you can control and manage some things like organizational structure, administrative processes, and clarity of vision, you give the team or organization a stable basis from which to push out towards that next discovery or idea. We can reduce the risk and enable greater opportunities by keeping in place the things that are already working well. This has to be more than just one person or one leader. It has to be about a sustainable environment of committed, empowered, talented and experienced people, working so well together may not even notice how well they're doing. Making the difficult look easy.
This is hard when what you’re making and sustaining is systems and processes. The legacy is ineffable. (As I said to my coach, “it’s not like I’m building pyramids.”) But the legacy can still be critical and memorable. And unlike a pyramid or other monument, organizational legacy is about the people and not the person. After all, monuments are not always sustainable.
A sustainable team and organization gives us a safe place to land, when reaching for the stars doesn’t work out. It holds the ladder steady when someone needs to stand on the top step. And it is ready to help or take over holding the box, with ease, grace and minimal fuss.
Why are some teams smarter than others? A recent article in the New York Times aims to tackle this quandary with a through review of some recent scholarly articles. I confess I have not looked up the scholarly articles referenced there, so I’m trusting the NYT to have accurately captured the gist of them. The characteristics of good and effective teams are, IMHO, accurate. Leaving out the one about team diversity (I’m not a fan of genderizing these kinds of things), here’s the three that characterized the most effective teams.
Team member communicate a lot. Implicit in this must be that they communicate well, as I know lots of people who communicate A LOT without it being effective. Communication in any circumstance needs to be clear, concise and complete to be most effective. While this can be challenging in a team, where you have to account for multiple perspectives and backgrounds, it still requires that individuals stick to the 3C principle to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio in their communications. Lots of noise in a team can lead to some members tuning out, compromising the next factor.
Team members participate equally. This factor also should consider the quality of the contributions as well as the volume. Some team members will have subject matter expertise that is essential to success of the work, but is only required in a narrow or specific part of the project, and so the amount of work that they do is small but it’s contribution is a critical success factor. While there’s a risk here of having “elite” team members, sometimes individuals are needed only for their unique skills, and to have them involved in other aspects of the work could be detrimental to the outcomes, if their knowledge or style would inhibit rather than enhance the work. That’s not to say that team members shouldn’t be allowed or encouraged to contribute in a multidisciplinary way, or that more junior team member should be limited in their involvement. But each individual’s involvement should balance the needs of the work, the efficiency and effectiveness of their contributions, and the opportunities for each to learn from the work experience.
Related to the point about communication, keeping the noise down is important to allow team members to contribute. If team members can’t be heard above the rambling contributions of others, they may minimize or withdraw their efforts, resulting in only the squeakiest wheels contributing. And the squeaky wheels are not typically the most useful.
Team members possess good-emotion reading skills. This is the hardest to learn and to evaluate. Perhaps also known as intuition or instinct (or in some circles, “spidey-senses”), the ability to read people is not something that can be taught effectively. It can be learned, and that learning supported by coaching and mentoring, but since both the individuals and the circumstance play such a large role in reading and responding to these, people develop these skills with time and experience, not from teaching or training. These are related to communication skills, but are more implicit and have more to do with personality than any specific project or work.
One missing element from this list is a good team leader – perhaps it doesn’t fit in with the organic nature of the teams and work studied. A good leader can enable these team characteristics by modelling these behaviours and mentoring team members in their development, as well as checking and correcting things when they get off track. For example, if there is a team member who’s not contributing equally, an effective leader will identify and work to correct that before it becomes something that undermines the team’s success.
I found it interesting that the research showed these characteristics were the same for both live and virtual teams. I think this is something that often gets missed when people work remotely or virtually, in that it gets assumed that good communication and team relations (among other things) are less important when you’re not co-located – that somehow getting to know your team mates is less critical when you don’t ever meet them. I think quite the opposite is true – when you don’t have the opportunity to meet and interact live with your team mates, these things can be even more important, and require more effort BECAUSE you don’t have the opportunity to meet live.
I would be interested in additional research in this area to understand if there’s a “bad apple” effect – can you really ruin a good team with just one person not communicating or contributing well? I think this is possible, especially if the person intentionally ruins things by withholding effort, or uses communication and emotion to manipulate team mates. Can a really good team overcome this effect? I think they can, if they are strong in these characteristics, have experience working together, and have a strong and effective team leader.
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.